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Sunday, November 06, 2005

His destiny in his own hands

Simon Jenkins in this morning's Sunday Times outlines the reasons why Tony Blair will stay Prime Minister until the very last minute:

For a healthy prime minister to resign early in a parliament with no pressing engagement in the offing would be astonishing. Blair has not only announced his determination to stay but has set out the business that remains to be completed. To leave it unfinished on his desk would be more than a U-turn, it would be an admission of failure, a humiliation. The flurry of new Blair biographies in the bookshops this Christmas (the best from Peter Riddell and Anthony Seldon) all say the same. Blair regards his legacy as incomplete, his vocation unfulfilled. The symphony has yet to move from andante to allegro, let alone to coda.

In other words it is hard to envisage circumstances in which Blair voluntarily steps down from office in the near future. He may be careless of the careers of his colleagues but even the most virulent press frenzy is unlikely to budge him. This means that if Blair is to go and Brown assume the crown, he will have to be pushed.

This is as implausible as voluntary resignation. Labour leaders are near impregnable in office. Unlike the Tories, the party has no tradition of ruthlessness towards its leaders. None has been toppled or even formally challenged in half a century.

This analysis very much echoes my own last Sunday. The way that Tony Blair has reformed the constitution of the Labour Party and his own Parliamentary Party effectively leaves him unchallengeable. What is most interesting about Simon Jenkins' piece however is his analysis of political accountability:

Britain’s political ethos is wholly eccentric. A minister may take Britain to war on a lie, blow billions on health computers and tax credits, waste grotesque sums on ID cards and Eurofighters. For all this he may walk down Whitehall with his head held high. But if he fails to declare a mortgage loan or a two-bit consultancy the Furies descend in synthetic rage and drive him from office. Cause a fatal pile-up on the M1 and you may leave your insurer’s name; stop one minute on a yellow line and you are in the slammer.

Last week’s events showed yet again the poverty of British democratic accountability. The cliché holds that the personal trustworthiness of ministers is the guarantor of their public competence. Private trust is code for public trust. This is humbug. The job of parliament and the press is to scrutinise a minister’s public duties. Their private ones are no collateral. British ministers are nowadays deposed, usually in a theatrical frenzy of pavements and doorways, because the political community has abandoned its day job. It scrutinises the executive by media proxy.

In this I believe that Jenkins is wholly right. All politicians now take their lead from the media, who are able to use the resources and their access to one-on-one scrutiny sessions with Ministers and other politicians to get at the truth and ask the difficult questions in a way that will really bite home. Those resources and that sort of access is not generally available to the opposition in a Parliamentary context. It is the media that builds up the case and creates the climate of no-confidence that tells a politician or his/her party that he/she must go. So it was with Thatcher, with many of John Major's Ministers, with Mandelson and with Blunkett.

I do not think that this is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of politicians. What I do believe is that it is a reflection of the times we live in, where public opinion is formed through an unelected media and led by it. A politician can only ignore that voice for so long before he or she has to accede to it. It underlines the growing strength of the Executive, the weakening of Parliament as a scrutiny body and a reduction in the influence of backbench MPs. All of these factors amount to a decline of the democratic process. Our Parliamentary democracy is in danger of being made redundant by the mass multi-media society we now live in.


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