Labour's decline and fall
The latest Blunkett revelations are a symptom of a Government rotting from within
THERE ARE five great offices of state which, between them, dominate Westminster and Whitehall. They are Downing Street, the Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office and Defence.
At present, five months before a general election, the structure is a shambles. This makes it difficult to be governed; it will also make it difficult for the Labour Party to win the general election, however far ahead it may be in the opinion polls. Yet no one can see how the structure can be mended.
The trouble starts at the top. The relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer can best be described as one of political enmity though Tony Blair and Gordon Brown co-operate out of mutual interest. In effect, there are two governments; one, which controls foreign affairs, defence and patronage, is run from Downing Street; the other, which controls public expenditure and social policy, is run from the Treasury.
This division of powers is similar to that between the monarch and the Prime Minister in the 18th century. George II and Robert Walpole, or George III and Lord North, shared authority in a similar way. One difference is that no 18th-century monarch would have put up with the gloomy insubordination that Tony Blair has had to tolerate for the past seven years. Another difference is that no 18th-century prime minister wanted to make himself king. On the whole, the division of powers worked better in the 18th century than it does in the 21st.
It used to be said that control of expenditure and revenue made the House of Commons the sovereign element in the British constitution. That control has now passed to the Treasury: it belongs to the Commons only in a notional sense; it belongs to the Prime Minister only if he is able, if necessary, to dismiss his Chancellor. At present, and until the election, it belongs effectively to Gordon Brown; he is the sovereign power.
The conflict between these two governments is a serious handicap to the administration. Ministers cannot adopt policies that Mr Brown will not pay for. Every important policy has to be financed and therefore becomes a negotiation between the two governments. Mr Brown sincerely thinks that he ought to be prime minister and is inclined to behave as though he were. The closer one gets to the heart of the Government machine, the louder is the grinding of these gears.
Since the election of 2001 this ultimately intolerable strain has been mediated by the other three major ministers: Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the Secretary for Defence. Now two of these three are in disarray.
Mr Straw is the exception. A sound lawyer-politician, a master of his many briefs, who knows when to keep his head down, he is the only one of the big five who still enjoys a normal level of confidence and respect.
Mr Hoon survives in office, but his prevaricating evidence to the Hutton inquiry did him much harm. He sounded untrustworthy and over-promoted; presumably he was retained because Mr Blair thought it would do the Government more damage to dismiss him than to keep him. He adds no weight to the Cabinet.
This was the Governmentís situation before the Blunkett story broke. Iím not sure that David Blunkett is a particularly good Home Secretary; he seems to have a positive mania for legislation, as was shown by the absurd over-indulgence in Home Office Bills in the Queenís Speech. Much of the time he is governed by soundbites. But he is, or was, a superb ministerial politician.
He has a combination of intelligence and forcefulness which gives him the weight that many of his colleagues lack. In his personal troubles, his obsessive quality has been only too apparent. Yet obsessiveness can be a political virtue. He charges like a bull in the ring, or a Dreadnought at sea. For seven years he may have been the only minister who was not the tiniest bit afraid of Gordon Brown.
Iím not sure that he can survive; his second affair seems particularly disturbing. There tends to be an abuse of power when the boss has an affair with an attractive junior, and breaks up her current relationship. The whole Blunkett story is becoming excessive; each twist raises new questions.
If Mr Blunkett does survive, his reputation will not be restored to what it was. He has not behaved in the impeccable way that Mr Blair promised for his administration. He has not shown judgment; he has involved civil servants in his private life. At best he would be a damaged minister, a weight on Mr Blairís authority rather than a support. He is certainly not a future prime minister, yet a minister who does not have a marshalís baton in his knapsack lacks one of the tools of power.
The Labour Party itself still has a lot of support. Recent opinion polls show Labour ahead by between two and eight points, enough for another large majority. Yet at a general election Labour will have to convert opinion poll preferences into votes, and that Labour has been failing to do. In the past six months there have been parliamentary by-elections, local government by-elections and local government and European elections, four different tests of actual voting. In none of them has Labour reached the equivalent of 30 per cent, the level probably required for another majority.
Mr Blair cannot offer his present top team to the country, as they are. The questions come thick and fast, like the arrows at Hastings or Agincourt. When will Mr Blair retire? Will he reappoint Gordon Brown as Chancellor? Will Mr Brown go to the back benches? Who will replace Geoff Hoon? Will David Blunkett have left office already? When will he go?
This Labour Government is now like a rotten tree. It is loosely bolted together by the iron ring of Straw, Hoon and Blunkett. Now the iron ring itself is breaking up.