Peter Oborne

The Prime Minister is emerging as a serial bungler on an epic scale

The Prime Minister is emerging as a serial bungler on an epic scale

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The longer they stay in power, the more prime ministers lose their political touch. This seems to be an unbreakable rule, and Tony Blair is emphatically not an exception. For most prime ministers, however, there is an important compensation. The longer they stay in Downing Street, the more accomplished they become at the art of government. They steadily get to understand the secret springs and mechanisms of power.

The funny thing is that Tony Blair has failed to mature in this way. Not only is he losing his political touch, but he is also no more competent today than he was when he entered Downing Street nearly seven years ago. There is a growing body of evidence to support this rather damning assertion. Last year’s Cabinet reshuffle, by a distance the most shambolic in living memory, was one eye-opener. Downing Street announced that the job of lord chancellor was being abolished with instant effect, then changed its mind a few hours later when officials pointed out that primary legislation would be needed if this act of constitutional vandalism was to take effect. This elementary schoolboy howler suggested that no one who carried weight in No. 10 really knew or cared much about government.

The abuse of national immigration controls, with Home Office officials effectively being ordered to collude with international criminals and ignore basic checks, is another manifestation of this incompetence at the heart of government. So is the ghastly problem which may well end up destroying Tony Blair: the failure to plan the aftermath of war in Iraq. The Prime Minister is emerging as a serial bungler on an epic scale, and it is increasingly important to understand why. The problem is structural as much as individual. It dates right back to 2 May 1997, when Tony Blair first entered Downing Street. He made it plain from the start that New Labour would govern in an entirely new way; indeed, Tony Blair’s methodology of power amounted to a complete repudiation of the way all previous administrations, whether from the Right or the Left, chose to set about their business.

Our leading political scientists — Professor Dennis Kavanagh in his books, and Professor Peter Hennessy in his dazzling sequence of ‘overflight’ lectures — have set out the basic ingredients of the Blairite system. They have shown how the Prime Minister has dedicated himself to a form of personal rule that Charles I might have regarded as unwise. Government through Cabinet committee was abandoned, and replaced by discrete one-to-one relationships between the Prime Minister in the ‘centre’ and individual Cabinet ministers. As a result, real power has shifted away from the Cabinet to the tiny group of Blair cronies inside Downing Street, who are often to be found clustered around the sofa in the Prime Minister’s ‘den’.

This system has discouraged initiative and daring from Cabinet ministers. Those who have flourished in the era of sofa politics have been ciphers who have consistently failed to fight for the interests of their own departments. The most successful of these, beyond a doubt, has been Jack Straw. He has always subordinated the Foreign Office to the New Labour machine inside No. 10. He has, for instance, permitted the diplomatic service to become an arm of the Downing Street patronage system. Late last year he was apparently happy that the post of high commissioner to Canada should be waved in front of Jack Cunningham (who was sensible enough to rebuff the approach); now he has permitted Helen Liddell to be offered the equivalent post in Australia. As could readily have been predicted, this move has been greeted with dismay by FO officials. The diplomatic service is halfway to being converted into a system of outdoor relief for passed-over Cabinet ministers. Any foreign secretary worth his salt would never have allowed nepotism to have determined senior official appointments. But Jack Straw, who has an ancient and well-documented history of carrying out sordid little favours for Labour prime ministers, was only too ready to collude in debauching the integrity of our diplomatic service.

Straw’s unctuous willingness to conspire with Downing Street against his own department has had other malevolent effects. Both before and after the Iraq war, the Foreign Office has had no real representation in Cabinet — only Straw. Warnings from Arabists and Middle East experts about the dangers of invading Iraq seem never to have been properly passed on: if they had, we might not be in the desperate situation we are now.

The immigration disaster is another result of the Blairite system of central control. Monday’s Daily Telegraph leader column asserted that the Prime Minister secretly arranged for entry procedures to be ignored in order to ensure that his infamous ‘target’ to halve asylum applications could be hit. This claim, though plausible enough, remains to be proved. But there is already abundant evidence that Home Office procedures were hopelessly skewed by officials who bent the rules to make sure that Tony Blair’s reckless edict was met. Experience should have taught the Prime Minister that target-setting at best does not work, and at worst can have the catastrophic distorting effects that have recently come to light in the Home Office. But it has been a hallmark of his personal rule all along.

So have Downing Street ‘summits’ — yet another manifestation of the defining Blairite heresy that only direct personal intervention by the Prime Minister can bring about change. Tuesday’s gathering on immigration was bathed in pathos, a moving testament to the way the New Labour project retains an irrational belief in the potency of Tony Blair. For this myth to endure, it is essential that the Prime Minister should be publicly understood as a modernising, efficient, quasi-heroic figure of Napoleonic genius. The tragedy is that he is nothing of the sort. Poor Tony Blair is just another rather baffled middle-aged man who suddenly finds himself terrifyingly out of his depth. All those claims that he could ‘transform’ the welfare state, ‘save’ the NHS or ‘sort out’ Iraq amount to so much hot air.

The horrible truth for all of us is that Tony Blair has lost control. There is nothing much he can do about immigration, and nothing at all that he can do to halt the slide into civil war in Iraq, if that is the way things are going. His premiership has been curiously childlike. Both domestically and internationally he has meddled in things he does not properly understand.

The irony is that the man who claims to be able to control everything has ended up able to control nothing. Poor Tony Blair now finds himself in a most precarious position for any leader. He has become the victim, and not the shaper, of events.