It has been a week of stagnation and drift in Westminster. MPs have almost nothing to do in the Commons. On Monday night party managers put Conservative MPs on a one-line whip; in other words told them that they might as well go home, a decision that was only partly inspired by the forlorn hope that it would stop them plotting. This state of affairs looks set to carry on right up to the Queen’s Speech, which is not due till late November. Only in the House of Lords, where peers on Tuesday night voted down the Hunting Bill in a sudden squall of energy, is there any purpose or vitality.
It is hard to know whose plight is the more wretched: the Tories with their inability to oppose, or New Labour with its incapacity to govern. Both parties are gripped by a crisis of identity. New Labour does not know what it is for, while the Conservative party has lost the ability to articulate what it believes. Tory MPs walk around in twos and threes discussing the leadership. The latest rumination in this endless conversation is whether to strike before or after Sir Philip Mawer, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, concludes his report into alleged irregularities inside Iain Duncan Smith’s private office.
Most make the case for waiting. They are hoping that Sir Philip will do their job for them. A minority say: strike at once. They argue, correctly, that the Betsygate allegations have nothing to do with the real case for or against Duncan Smith. Furthermore, it is beginning to emerge that early hopes that Mawer will conduct his business with dispatch may be dashed.
Sir Philip, it should be borne in mind, has emerged from a deep lassitude in order to carry out this investigation. Even now that he has been stimulated into action, he will advance with caution. Once he produces his draft report, a process that will take weeks, if not months, he is bound to show it to Duncan Smith. Commons rules give the Tory leader the right to challenge any or all of the Mawer conclusions in advance of publication, and call back any witness for reinterview. Duncan Smith is more or less certain to cause trouble of this sort if Sir Philip is critical. Nor is that all. Once Mawer finishes his report, it goes to the Commons standards and privileges committee, a torpid and self-important body that will wish to form its own judgment on Duncan Smith. The affair is unlikely to reach a conclusion much before Christmas.
In the meantime, the Conservative party is paralysed. The return to Westminster from Blackpool has produced no change in the mood among MPs. If anything, anxiety has deepened. Wednesday’s melancholy call for change at the top from the City bookmaker Stuart Wheeler, one of the major Tory donors, carried special weight. No personal rancour, hidden menace or thwarted ambition lay behind Wheeler’s regretful verdict: it was the more powerful for that.
The only man who knows exactly how the land lies is Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee. He has in his possession an unknown number of letters from Tory MPs calling for a vote of confidence in the leader. It is his duty to inform the 1922 once the total reaches 25, or 15 per cent of the parliamentary party. The 1922 meets, usually in Room 14 off the committee corridor, early on Wednesday evenings. This week the odds tilted from a shade of odds against to odds on that Spicer will have news for his committee one Wednesday before the onset of winter.
The same catastrophic inanition that overwhelms the Conservative party has Labour by the throat as well. The trouble with the Prime Minister’s very minor heart problem is its symbolism. It has occurred at the exact moment when New Labour has started to look sick and tired. It needs electric shock treatment, very possibly a period of sedation as well. Tony Blair’s first six years as Prime Minister have been lived in a blaze of initiatives, press releases, speeches, seminars, receptions, lunches, dinners, trips, bilaterals, betrayals, understandings, deals, rapprochements, reshuffles, sackings, promotions, summits, openings, defining moments, agendas, pacts, deadlines, postponements, meetings, motions, statements to the House, fresh ultimatums of one kind of another. Some of this meaningless bustle is doubtless unavoidable, all part and parcel of contemporary life. The trouble is that Tony Blair has allowed his frenzied immediate environment to define him, not the other way around.
One manifestation of this destructive syndrome was the way the Prime Minister, within hours of his little heart trauma, was up and at it once more. He might have been better off staying in bed. Tony Blair has long harboured the illusion, in common with most successful public men, that activity is the same as purposeful achievement. It is much easier to make a speech that someone else has written for you than to think. In recent years Tony Blair has started to resemble in a number of disconcerting respects Prime Minister Outrage, the permanently confused victim of events in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, the comic masterpiece recently desecrated by the costume drama Bright Young Things. Tony Blair often gives the impression that he knows rather less about what is really going on than practically anyone else in the country. When talking about imminent discovery of WMD in Iraq, or the rosy prospect of entry to the euro, he sounds plain daft. He thinks that saying things just makes them happen. At his speech in Bournemouth three weeks ago, he spoke enthusiastically about national ID cards, an idea which fizzled away and died a few days later. He made no sense at all on Iraq, while his call for a reconfiguration of British politics came out of the blue, made no sense, and has not been followed up.
Party managers told the Prime Minister the speech was a success, but all they meant was that it had been well choreographed. It gave no new vitality or ideas. Others have been endeavouring to fill the vacuum without success. It is worth studying the article by Stephen Byers in last week’s New Statesman about intellectual renewal to gain a proper sense of New Labour’s bottomless vacancy.
One event redeemed the week. On Tuesday, Tony Blair, wan and yellow, his throat loose at the collar and looking ill, arrived at Stormont in an attempt to lift the peace process. It was a failed journey, but still ever so necessary. It is nearly ten years since the Downing Street Declaration and we have never been closer to a final settlement. The story of Ulster, for all its failures and betrayals, is a vindication of politics and politicians. But on the mainland they are failing, and they do not know why.