There is something comically surreal about the ten-year plans Tony Blair has commissioned across his Cabinet. A Prime Minister who will not last another ten months is asking his Cabinet to agree a strategy in four areas of policy. No one engaged in the process is in any doubt about its futility. Soon Gordon Brown will be prime minister and his own, deeply personal strategy will be the only one that matters. All activity until then is hopelessly cosmetic.
It is in this spirit that ministers are preparing for the Queen’s Speech on 15 November. There was a time under this government when this event would fizz with Blairite energy, as Her Majesty was asked to read out plans for an inordinate amount of legislation, knowing, as we all did, that it could never be fitted into the parliamentary timetable. Now there are barely enough ideas to fill the speech. Each Whitehall department knows that anything substantial will be completely revised when the Chancellor takes over.
‘We are between bookends,’ one Cabinet member told me. ‘The last Labour conference was the end of Blair. The next conference will be the start of Brown. But this leaves us in a strange interregnum.’ The same mood pervades the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department of Health. Officials know the old policy has gone wrong, and strategy needs to be revamped. But until Mr Brown is installed in No. 10 it is not worth having a debate about policy, let alone wasting energy drafting prospective legislation. Whitehall is becalmed.
The main exception is the Home Office, which is being reformed by John Reid, who believes his agenda will somehow be Brown-proof. His boisterous confidence means the Home Office is virtually the only department which is humming with activity. The root-and-branch review process he started in July will take effect through the Bills on criminal justice, immigration and anti-terrorism that will dominate the Queen’s Speech.
In private, Mr Reid tells friends he is relaxed about his own future. He remains willing to challenge Mr Brown for the party leadership, but knows that such a move would only have a prayer of success if the opinion polls suddenly suggested Mr Reid had a demonstrably better chance of leading Labour to victory. Internal party polling has shown Mr Brown in such a dire light that the Cabinet has not been presented with any results for weeks. But the fact remains that there is no research showing that anyone else in Labour’s ranks would fare much better against David Cameron.
It is not in Mr Reid’s nature to stage a fake fight; if he went head-to-head with the Chancellor, it would be a vicious and compelling battle likely to leave both men in shreds. For this reason, a deal can be cut with the Chancellor: he would keep the Home Office and use it as a personal power base, just as Mr Brown has used the Treasury. From this fortress, he could nurture the reforms due to be announced in the Queen’s Speech. The combative Mr Reid is by far the greatest threat to the Chancellor. Should he sue for peace, the Chancellor is likely to accept.
The ministers steering the Climate Change Bill can proceed with confidence because they have the Chancellor’s public blessing (whatever the private reservations briefed to the press by his spin-doctors). The Stern report on the economics of climate change has transformed the environmental agenda: the Treasury will now decide which green taxes should go forward. To his credit, the Chancellor has always been instinctively leery about these forms of tax, knowing that they tend to hit the poorest hardest. But having the Conservatives campaign for tax rises is too good an opportunity to squander.
To his immense credit, John Hutton is leading the Work and Pensions Department with the courage of a kamikaze pilot. His Pensions Bill will be a key measure in the Queen’s Speech, enacting the deal agreed through gritted teeth by the Chancellor last May. The state pension age will rise to 68 and the link between the state pension and earnings will be restored. But this arrangement is set to start in 2012 — by which time Mr Brown will have had plenty of time to rewrite the rules with his own pensions legislation.
This is why there are so few takers for this Queen’s Speech. Anything which bears the personal imprimatur of the Prime Minister is — almost ipso facto — destined for the Chancellor’s shredder. And what is true of proposals is also true of people. It is fairly clear that radical surgery is required for the National Health Service, but any new plan will last no longer than its doomed Secretary of State, Patricia Hewitt. Alan Johnson has no greater life expectancy as Education Secretary, and his recent U-turn on faith schools underlined his department’s rudderless feel.
This is why so much now rests on the forthcoming pre-Budget report and the spending review due next year. Both will be seen as the start of the Brown era, setting out the core assumptions which Whitehall can finally use to start planning. The spending review will aim to fix every department’s spending limits — and priorities — until March 2011. But it will serve another purpose. To mark Mr Brown’s tenth year in the Treasury, it will seek to set the economic framework for the next decade.
Stalin’s politburo decided in the mid-1920s that plans for more than five years were futile, as the future cannot be predicted so far in advance. No such reservations impede Mr Brown. Unlike the crystal ball-gazing exercises commissioned to humour Mr Blair, the Chancellor is deadly serious about laying out his vision until 2017. But the nature of that vision is shared with no one outside his tiny group of advisers. ‘He does have a plan,’ one Cabinet member, seen as a Brownite, told me. ‘But I don’t know what it is. And I can just hope it’s a good one.’
We have entered Westminster’s gap year, a strange parliamentary vacuum where the Conservatives have no policies to promote and Labour is treading water, waiting to hear from the Chancellor what its policies will be. But outside the political village, life goes on. NHS ‘rationalisation’ is sending Middle England into revolt, with 6,000 on the streets of Guildford last weekend, protesting at possible closures at Royal Surrey County Hospital. Next week’s American mid-term elections may well lead to a fundamental rethink on Iraq. And yet, from Westminster, nothing.