Once the Blair Government has turned turtle an event not likely to be very far into the future systematic attempts to explain the catastrophe will be required, and the process will not be much fun for people who believe seriously in democracy.
The immediate task is to make clear the sheer irrational nastiness of the last Friday’s ‘Great Reshuffle’ generally taken to be Blair’s last grand flourish with the wildly excessive personal patronage modern British prime ministers have been allowed to exercise.
If Washington rhetoric is taken seriously and to some extent it has to be Britain is embroiled with its great ally in a deadly dangerous crisis over nuclear weaponry in the Middle East. And at this moment, Margaret Beckett, a woman whose entire knowledge of Iranian politics would probably fit into an SMS, is told to get ‘Foreign Secretary’ printed on her business cards, bone up on centrifuge technology and fly off to help Condoleezza Rice terrify the ayatollahs.
The morning after a tough night of musical chairs at Number 10.
This is bitterly wounding for Jack Straw, tossed out of the job he was tossed into quite as abruptly in 2001, when the late Robin Cook was deemed unacceptably skeptical about the need to invade Iraq. Poor Jack has spent a horrible few years, loyally fantasising about the lethality of tiny phials of botulin now he gets the boot for no more visible offence than sending the ‘wrong message’ to Tehran. That is, for saying that a new military assault would be ‘nuts.’
So Straw is turned into Leader of the Commons: a gofer whose tedious duty it is to pump government legislation through Westminster’s constipated intestines. This is exactly the slot Cook was forced into, though without the sweetener given to Cook (fraudulent as it turned out) of a chance to institute reform of the peerage system.
Charles Clarke, now ex-Home Secretary, was another who carried loyalty well past the excesses that Cardinal Wolsey gave to Henry VIII, and which Geoffrey Howe blamed himself for extending to Margaret Thatcher. Almost nobody who is acquainted with Clarke thinks him capable of believing Blair’s fantasy about the practicability or value of a national ID database being a mathematician originally, he doesn’t have the science-blindness of a true Blairite. Nonetheless, he blustered away in support of the attacks on jury trial, the presumption of innocence and the rest of Downing Street’s law’n’order program co-operating especially in Blair’s tirades against the ‘liberal press.’
There was in this a glimpse of self-immolation. For some months Clarke was aware of an impending nightmare: the fact that the Home Office, raising its legendary incompetence to fresh heights, had simply lost several hundred very unattractive foreign criminals.
(A senior judge has been privately showing people the official responses he got after ‘sending down’ villainous aliens, suggesting that they might be suitably repatriated if any nation would accept them. These all began ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ and ended with an obviously meaningless assurance that the matter would be attended to by some unnamed person in due course.)
Now, this kind of stuff is pure catnip to Tories and red-top tabloids. But for anyone who has a little control of their criminological reflexes, it is really a trash issue. The numbers involved don’t add substantially to Britain’s stock of home-grown, undeportable malefactors.
A politician badly needing to make this point has only one real public ally namely, the liberal newspapers and some well-trained reporters working in the BBC or Channel 4 News. But two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was locked in battle with all such people: making his point in a furious barrage of emails aimed at The Observer columnist Henry Porter. (In which, says Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Blair was wrong on every substantial legal point he made.)
Clarke sprang loyally into battle on the PM’s behalf. Two weeks back, he gave a lecture at the London School of Economics in which he named individuals for ‘lazy journalism’ and ‘debasing the language’ going on to hint that some formal regulation might be needed to stop such people misleading the public. I had a small exchange of my own with him, which was perfectly civilised, but sufficient to establish that he knew no more than his boss about the legal system he wanted radically to modify.
But the real point is that, in addition to public attack on several potent columnists, he had earlier in the day privately called in representatives of the ‘liberal media’ that is, of the Guardian and Independent groups for what Fleet Street used to call ‘a bollocking.’
None of those summoned were especially dismayed at Clarke’s frantic loyalty to his boss. But the next day, other pressures forced him to go public with the facts about the released foreign miscreants. A largely spurious crisis then overwhelmed the poor man. And the liberal scribblers, too busy defending themselves against charges of mischievous propagandising, were in no mood to help.
And here comes the last grim twist. Gathering up some remnants of honour, Clarke offered to resign. Now, if Blair had let him go, Clarke would actually have looked pretty good. Back to the good old days when Ministers took responsibility, etc.
But Blair wouldn’t have it, hoping to bluff things out. Then, when the disastrous results around the municipal elections made everything inescapably clear, Clarke was fired under the appearance, now, of a man who had tried for days to cling ignobly to the job in which he had failed.
Reportedly, Clarke was offered some spurious seat in the new game of musical chairs. Perhaps he could have been like Geoff Hoon, who is now ejected from the popsition of Leader of the House to make room for the ex-Foreign Secretary. Hoon reappears as deputy to the new Foreign Secretary, presumably on the grounds that while in recent command of the Iraq War (as Defence Secretary) he must have learnt enough about the Middle East to show her where Iran is on the map.
Once in the Los Angeles Times newsroom I saw a green tennis visor printed with the words: ‘Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief.’ All jobs in the Blair Government, apart from that of Prime Minister, should carry that description. As Charles Clarke discovered, they are perfectly interchangeable and dispensable.
And what, you may ask, about Gordon Brown waiting, say his friends, to take over what remains of the Labour Party?
It seems clear that nobody consulted him about the Great Purge. Meetings are now being conducted in which Brown will attempt to discover what Blair is playing at, and in particular when he is going to stop doing it and let someone else have a go.
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