Very few political decisions achieve nothing but good: one of them was the abolition of exchange controls exactly 25 years ago. This week the Adam Smith Institute rightly marked the anniversary with a dinner at the St Ermin’s hotel. Geoffrey Howe, the chancellor who masterminded the stroke, reflected on how monumental the judgment — so obvious in retrospect — appeared at the time. Lord Howe revealed that it was the only occasion in his career that he lost sleep on account of a policy decision, while Margaret Thatcher was all but overcome by last-minute nerves. Nigel Lawson, financial secretary in 1979, used the event to muse on how political judgments are reached. ‘It was a leap in the dark,’ he remembered. ‘We knew that if we had waited for a consensus, nothing would have happened. We had to make the decision, and then build a new consensus around it.’
I reflected on Lord Lawson’s remarks after watching poor Tony Blair duck question after question at his monthly Downing Street press conference on Monday. This was a badly attended affair, only called at the last moment, and a fractious Prime Minister had little to say. Even his jokes failed to come off. His government now operates along exactly opposite lines to the classic account formulated by Lord Lawson at the St Ermin’s hotel. Blair consults his focus groups, tries to build his consensus, and then makes his leap in the dark.
In the early days, it was not like this. The Blair government was indeed capable of bold strokes, of which granting independence to the Bank of England was the most notable. Admittedly that was Gordon Brown’s, and emphatically not Tony Blair’s, achievement. But seven years ago even Tony Blair’s more emollient means of decision-making often worked. Because everyone so desperately willed him on to succeed, he could sometimes pull off miracles. But today this magic has vanished. When the Prime Minister tries to build coalitions, he creates rifts. When he tries to move forward, he engenders only resistance.
A wide gap has opened up between what Tony Blair says and what he means. The gambling Bill, which only two weeks ago seemed set to meander serenely through Parliament, is a case in point. At Monday’s press conference Tony Blair was all square behind the sensible and long-delayed plan to allow more casinos in Britain’s cities, and open up to the masses the private pleasures of the elite. But immediately the conference was over, the government briefing machine set to work, telling friendly lobby correspondents that the Prime Minister hadn’t really meant a word he said, and that the government was set upon climb-down.
The Home Secretary’s decision, formalised on Monday, to abandon Britain’s veto on asylum and immigration to Brussels is another example. There is doubtless something to be said for this concession, which brings Britain into line with the rest of the European Union. If so, ministers did not try to make their case. Instead they denied that the surrender had been made, sticking as best they could to the line which Tony Blair propounded to David Frost last June, that Britain ‘will have complete control over our asylum policies’.
The Prime Minister took cover behind exactly the same mendacity during last week’s row over the future of the examination system. This is what he told the CBI on 18 October: ‘As Mike Tomlinson and Charles Clarke said, GCSEs and A-levels will stay.’ But Tomlinson never said any such thing. On the contrary, the Tomlinson report explicitly states that ‘the existing system of qualifications...should be replaced by a system of diplomas, available at entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced levels.’ Government ministers were guilty of exactly the same kind of duplicity during the row over the Black Watch deployment in Iraq. The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon went on denying that any deployment had been ordered long after the soldiers and their families had been instructed to move.
When Tony Blair finally came clean, he tried to sweeten the pill by insisting that the Black Watch would be back home by Christmas. Then it emerged that he was being disingenuous; it emerged two days later that though the Black Watch would return, another regiment would be dispatched to replace it.
It is hard to tell whether this duplicity is deliberate or whether the Prime Minister just changes his mind from day to day. Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. This same unedifying conundrum was raised again late on Tuesday night, when peers voted to replace the hunting ban with a system of regulation. They were gallantly responding to repeated messages from Tony Blair himself, who has told Countryside Alliance supporters privately that he is opposed to the ban and wants a ‘compromise’. The Prime Minister’s bluff has now been called; he has been given the compromise he says he wants, and it will be interesting to see whether he has the courage to deliver.
There’s been nothing unusual about the last two weeks. This is how the Blair government carries on its business. Since it lacks any self-belief, and no longer knows what it is for, it is forced to operate through feint, quiet deals and deceit. New Labour is kept in business only by its brute Commons majority, and even that is ever more mutinous and distrustful.
The British political cycle has entered a disreputable period from which there is no obvious sign that it will ever emerge. Political leadership, as Nigel Lawson remarked at the St Ermin’s hotel, is about making a decision and then creating the consensus. Tony Blair has lost that gift. The future will belong to the political leader — perhaps Gordon Brown, maybe Michael Howard — who can recapture it.
John Major reacted with pleasing urgency to my observation, made here last week, that he held back from airing private reservations about Iraq because of close connections with the Bush family. By Sunday morning the former prime minister was on Breakfast with Frost, airing doubts about the deployment of British troops outside Basra. What followed is fascinating. Within hours an emissary from the Bush machine was on the phone, voicing dismay and urging John Major to pipe down. This curious little episode demonstrates the naivety of claims made by many Blairite commentators that the new British military deployment was of no political interest to President George W. Bush. The British debate is actually the object of anxious fascination, as the Bush camp’s attention to detail in the case of John Major shows.