There was no mistaking the sadistic zeal with which Labour MPs bounded into the lobbies to vote for John Bercow on Monday. The whole election had been an unexpected gift to them: a chance to foist on David Cameron a Speaker who is loathed by the Conservative party. When Mr Bercow promised to serve ‘no more than nine years’, the scale of the prize became clearer still: a trick played upon the Tories that could last until the summer of 2018. It was scarcely plausible that Margaret Beckett would occupy the post for so long. From that moment, the race was Bercow’s.
History has been made, insofar as Mr Bercow is perhaps the first Speaker ever to be chosen on account of his unpopularity and lack of authority. And this is, in itself, a deeply revealing insight into the late-stage Labour game plan. A retreating army still has plenty of options, if it is imaginative enough. There are bridges to be burned, landmines to be laid, earth to be scorched. And Speaker Bercow is merely the most visible of the many shackles with which Labour hopes to burden a Tory government.
Such acts of political sabotage are about the only pleasure left to Labour. Almost no one shares Gordon Brown’s delusion that he can win the next election. One former Cabinet member recently told me he thinks it will be 2025 before Labour is back. Others wonder, in more maudlin moments, if Labour might follow the old Liberal party to the political graveyard. But in the next ten months, long-term decisions can be made and the levers of power pulled in order to keep a Labour agenda running long after a Tory government is installed.
This is by no means a naive ambition. British government is run by a machine that does not respond quickly to instructions from 10 Downing Street. It is a common delusion for new Prime Ministers to believe that the state will change direction as soon as they climb into the cockpit. As Tony Blair found out, it can take years before any shift in trajectory is truly perceptible. As we all know from our contact with information technology, real power lies with whoever has programmed the system — and this person, during the Blair years, was none other than Mr Brown, who relishes the complexity, scope and centralisation of government.
He can do much to ensure that the Tories will inherit parameters set by him, rules consistent with Labour ideology. Soon, we will see a list of Bills for what will probably be Mr Brown’s last ever Queen’s speech. We may, for example, hear more about his suddenly-discovered enthusiasm for voting reform. Harriet Harman is proposing a new law that would etch Labour values into the stone of every local authority. They would be legally bound to ensure that ‘narrowing the gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of public services’. This has been aptly described by one minister as ‘socialism in one clause’.
Other Tory-binding laws have already been passed, and targets adopted. The Climate Change Act will legally oblige Mr Cameron to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a fixed amount by 2020. European laws will ensure that Mr Cameron’s proposed Bill of Rights is futile. Labour’s declared intention to ‘abolish child poverty’ is, of course, a new, emotive way of describing the party’s age-old commitment to the redistribution of income. Not surprisingly, this strategy is failing — even on its own terms, with poverty rising however you measure it. Yet without a new, agreed way of assessing the true level of poverty and defining its character and origins, the Tories will be locked into an inherited Labour strategy that is as seared into Whitehall ‘groupthink’ as it is discredited by all reputable analysis.
On tax, the work is done. Mr Brown looks to have succeeded in tricking the Tories into keeping his 50p rate of tax — the third-highest top rate in the world. George Osborne is understood to have been taken in by Mr Brown’s claim that the tax will raise money. The experience of France and Norway suggests that — on the contrary — it could cost the Exchequer several billion pounds in lost tax revenue as the golden geese take flight. The 50p tax is a practical joke played on the Tories which will be much more profound and affect many more people than the prospect of John Bercow grinning down at them from the Speaker’s chair.
There is a way to stop Mr Brown’s sabotage. Whitehall knights read the press assiduously, and will not want to waste time now on projects which they know they will be forced to abandon after the general election. Chris Grayling, for example, has explicitly warned that he will tear up any contracts signed for the identity cards scheme. Home Office civil servants have been operating an unofficial go-slow on the project for the last year. In the few areas where there is already clear direction from the Tories, the civil service is responding pre-emptively.
So the game can be played two ways. Expectation of power is power. The Tories can start to influence government right now, if they are clear enough in the guidance they give to those who will almost certainly be serving them a year hence. If Michael Gove were to announce the broad details of his ‘new schools’ policy now, then interested parents, churches or community groups could start making plans at once, in advance of the general election. All that is needed is a figure: say, £5,000 funding per pupil, give or take some regional variations. As soon as Mr Gove makes this figure public, his policy will, in effect, have been launched. Delay in this case, as in others, wastes valuable time.
Mr Brown’s strategy has as its core premise that there is no coherent Conservative agenda to supplant his own. He genuinely regards Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne as lightweights, constitutionally incapable of mastering the mechanics of government. No one in Number 10 dares mention the word ‘legacy’ to the Prime Minister, as it implies an imminent defeat he does not want to contemplate. But judge him by his deeds: he is busy hard-wiring Labour rules, presumptions, orthodoxies and targets into the government system with specially chosen laws, accountancy tricks and long-term plans. This, he hopes, will be his true legacy: a Brownite prison for his successors.
But on the issue of the Speaker, at least, the Conservatives are ill-inclined to accept defeat. Anger on the Conservative benches has hardly dissipated, and the initial mutterings about deposing Mr Bercow in due course are already taking shape into a more organised, discreet plan of action. Traditionally, no party fields a candidate against the Speaker in his or her seat. But now that Mr Bercow has offered himself to Labour as a willing agent to irritate his own party, might an ‘independent Conservative’ stand against him in Buckingham? ‘Don’t think we wouldn’t try to arrange something like that,’ says a shadow cabinet member.
This is precisely the right spirit. From the choice of Speaker to the failed NHS system, there need be nothing inevitable about the survival, post-Gordon, of the failed Labour agenda. Changing government should mean changing not just the personnel but the language, metrics and yardsticks of success. Mr Cameron’s mission should not just be felling Mr Brown, but rooting out his ideas from the soil of Whitehall: to identify and eliminate the plans Labour made for the post-election years. Dealing with Mr Bercow should be only the start.