Norman Lamont once famously described the then Prime Minister as being “In office but not in power.” This week Tony Blair in turn moved closer to the situation where, while still in Number 10, he is less and less in sole control of the government’s destiny. The arrest of Lord Levy has clearly done immense harm to the Prime Minister – and the stage whispers from some Blairites complaining about the police action have made things worse rather than better. But Lord Levy’s trip to the police station, damaging though it was, is not the most powerful indicator in the past few days demonstrating the decay of the Prime Minister’s authority.
On issues where Blair clearly has the agreement of his colleagues, particularly Gordon Brown, he is occasionally capable of pushing for brave or reforming decisions to be made. A rare example, and one that I personally welcome, is the fact that civil nuclear power appears to be included in the government’s energy strategy.
But where, as so often, the Labour party is divided, Blair’s ability to get anything through is collapsing even faster than the respect in which he is held.
Much of the Labour party never really liked Tony Blair, but they put up with him while he won them elections. Now that he has declared that he will not stand again, and is increasingly seen as an electoral liability rather than an asset, Labour MPs are turning against him.
The clearest sign that we are approaching the end of the Blair era lies in the fact that, in the past few days, three flagship policies have collapsed and hardly anyone has taken much notice.
To the delight of many of us in Cumbria who thought that the proposed police merger would have been a terrible mistake, the police authorities in Lancashire and Cumbria have abandoned plans to merge after the government failed to provide the resources which would have been necessary to make the combined force work. The government then admitted that their proposed police force mergers had been placed on the back burner.
At the same time, civil servants who had been trying to prepare the government’s Identity Cards proposal were briefing the press that the proposal was proving unworkable and will not happen any time in the next few years. The official government spin is that that they have recognised that the timetable to introduce ID cards was unrealistic, but everyone know that means ID cards are dead in the water.
And now another flagship policy has collapsed. While national attention was on the evacuation of British civilians from Lebanon by the Royal Navy, the government has slipped out the news that the survey which was to form the central part of the “Home Information Packs” required under recent government legislation about house sales will no longer be compulsory when the packs come into force next year.
Since these surveys would have cost hundreds of pounds, I cannot see too many ordinary sellers preparing one while they are optional, though some specialist property dealers might. It will be interesting to see what the thousands of people who have paid for training as inspectors to qualify them to write the surveys will think of this. One of the professional organisations representing surveyors said that the industry has already spent £100 million on getting ready for the introduction of the packs.
Police force mergers and ID cards had the potential to significantly change what sort of country this is. Home Information Packs had the potential to significantly change the property market. The fact that the collapse of these policies has not generated more fuss tells you all you need to know about the fact that people have stopped taking the government seriously.
Like many third term Prime Ministers, Blair is becoming obsessed with his “legacy”. But he is increasingly unable to get any policy reforms through which would be distinctly Blairite.
Sadly – I say sadly because although I disagree with Blair, his failure is bad for the country as well as for himself and the Labour party – his legacy is most likely to be a poisoned political climate in which all politicians are presumed to be corrupt liars.