Three events counted at Westminster this week. The first, and by far the most important, was the dramatic testimony given on Monday to Lord Hutton by Kevin Tebbit, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. Tebbit confirmed that Tony Blair chaired the crucial meeting at which the ‘naming strategy’, designed to bring the identity of Dr Kelly into the public domain, was agreed.
However hard he tries, Lord Hutton will now find it impossible to keep some powerful criticisms of No. 10 Downing Street out of his report. And that blows sky-high the carefully constructed No. 10 strategy to make Geoff Hoon, the woeful Secretary of State for Defence, scapegoat for the Kelly affair. If Hoon resigns, as he surely must, people will find it hard to understand why Tony Blair, the architect of the naming strategy, does not resign as well.
It is easy to see why publication of the Hutton report has been put back, possibly to January. Lord Hutton needs time to balance his duty to stay loyal to the truth against the natural and proper reluctance any law lord must feel about inflicting massive and potentially lethal damage upon a sitting prime minister.
The second event, in some respects closer to farce than tragedy, was the announcement from Sir Philip Mawer, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, that he will investigate claims that Iain Duncan Smith paid his wife Betsy public money for carrying out a non-existent job. Sir Philip succeeded Elizabeth Filkin, who was drummed out as commissioner two years ago. Filkin had offended MPs of all parties by carrying out her task with zeal and professionalism. In three years in office she carried out no fewer than 39 full investigations into allegations made against MPs. Sir Philip has been in his job for approaching two years, during which time he has inquired into just two incidents.
Mawer would have been negligent had he failed to rise from his torpor to investigate these claims. Michael Crick, the Newsnight reporter who submitted his dossier of allegations to Sir Philip last week, has an enviable reputation for getting things right. If the Tory leader is found guilty of embezzling the taxpayer in the way that Crick suggests, he should not merely resign from the party leadership in disgrace but also face the kind of criminal investigation which Michael Trend, the retiring Conservative MP for Windsor, has been fortunate to evade.
Whether or not the Newsnight account is accurate is one thing. Beyond dispute is that the source was malicious. The story came from inside Central Office. It was leaked on the eve of the Conservative party conference with the intention of destroying the party leader — the most spectacular act of political terrorism in modern times. It reveals such a depth of disloyalty, hatred, treachery and malice deep within the Conservative machine that it is hard to credit. The party has become ungovernable. Exactly who is doing this or why is hard to say. William Hague suffered from the same kind of debilitating attacks. Probably any conceivable alternative leader — Howard, Davis, Letwin, Clarke, though perhaps not the metropolitan, modernising Michael Portillo — would do so too. The fundamental cause of the problem is the rise, during the course of the past two decades, of a new phenomenon — a tiny elite of unelected party officials, researchers, special advisers, etc., who bring to politics their own values and self-importance.
This new elite, sometimes out of vanity, just as often to promote an agenda, cultivates its own relations with the press, invariably at the expense of elected politicians. It is fundamentally a post-democratic phenomenon. Members of this new class are in essence courtiers. All parties possess these creatures. Above all, through the symptomatic figure of Alastair Campbell and his aides, they have been responsible for all the worst features of New Labour: its deceit, centralism, and grievous suspicion of outsiders. In the case of New Labour, they have been catastrophically damaging to the integrity of the political process, but, to their credit, loyal to the cause. Indeed, New Labour is in certain respects simply a vehicle of the new political class. But it has failed to secure control of the Conservative party, and turned as a result to infighting and betrayal. If Iain Duncan Smith is cleared on all charges — an outcome that can by no means be ruled out — he will need to address this endemic problem as a matter of urgency.
The third important event of the week was the Liberal Democrat reshuffle. It was the most skilful and accomplished piece of work carried out by Charles Kennedy since he became leader. He has shifted his party away from a muzzy collectivism and back in the direction of a kind of market liberalism which Gladstone might recognise. The Treasury team now has a grown-up look. Vincent Cable, the Treasury spokesman, was at Cambridge with Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke. Rather than dash impetuously into politics, he took a number of serious jobs, culminating as chief economist with Shell, before entering parliament in the 1997 general election. His deputy, David Laws, was a managing director of the city firm BZW by the age of 27.
Simon Hughes, the soft-hearted shadow home secretary who pressed to ban jail for first-time burglars, has been shunted aside. Mark Oaten, a Lib-Dem rising star, will bring a new robustness to law and order policies. It has taken Kennedy an inordinately long time to get the point. But the most sensible strategy for the Lib Dems is to position themselves to the Right, not to the Left, of New Labour. In the long term, the Lib-Dem reshuffle is as threatening for the Conservatives as Sir Philip Mawer’s investigation. In the meantime, Sir Philip and Lord Hutton hold the fate of the two main party leaders in their hands.