Normally the leaves are still on the trees, full of their autumn glory in russet and brown, when Parliament rises ahead of the Queen’s Speech. Not this year. For reasons no one can quite explain, this session has stretched on towards winter. It has been marred by squabbling and drift. Wednesday night’s venomous rebellion over foundation hospitals was in keeping with the mood of the rest of the year, easily Tony Blair’s worst as Labour leader. He has started to create the impression that he does not know who he is or what he is doing in Downing Street. Even quite loyal ministers readily admit that the government has lost its way.
Tony Blair’s behaviour has taken on a strange, random turn. He has developed a mildly deranged interest in meddling with the patronage system. The new list of working peers for the Lords, being assembled with eye-catching incompetence, mildly obsesses him. Or take the case of Jack Cunningham, the former Cabinet minister. Tony Blair has attempted to assuage his guilt about sacking Cunningham by offering him the position of High Commissioner to Canada. The move was guaranteed to infuriate the Foreign Office, not to say precipitate an unnecessary and potentially embarrassing by-election in Cunningham’s Copeland constituency, where the majority is just under 5,000. Wise Jack Cunningham turned the offer down.
Unhealthy interest in the minutiae of office is characteristic of prime ministers in their declining years. Harold Wilson after 1974 and Harold Macmillan from 1961 onwards suffered the same affliction. The reason is not hard to find. After a certain point most prime ministers discover that they are incapable of influencing great events in the way they had at first hoped, so they meddle with small things instead. The last two years have seen Tony Blair abandon his cherished dream of leading Britain into the euro.