Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hard Labour

..and is it ever.

After recovering from an exhausting campaign enlivened by the contributions of Prescott, Hewitt, Clarke and Blair, I'd hoped that things might calm down a little.

Not a bit of it. When Prescott isn't showing us his left hook, he's showing us his balls. He should have given up some of the perks when he left the ministerial department behind, whatever his wife may have wanted, not have waited until the media started tearing chunks off him. I'm not sure that this surrender will sate their appetites, to be honest - and Austin Mitchell and Ken Clarke seem to hold the same opinion (which has to be a first). If the pack moves on to fresh meat - as they have done in recent weeks over other five minute wonders - then he'll be OK, but if the Labour backbenches continue to stir the pot, then more trouble could be round the corner.

This latest scandal (has anyone adequately explained why a press photographer happened to have his long lens trained on the lawn at Dorneywood) has certainly taken the heat off Blair himself - although he's certainly damaged by association the longer the media pack howls at Prescott's heels. And howl they will, until the story rolls over or Prescott finally throws in the towel. If he does, what happens to Blair then? What if the Brownite wing puts up a candidate who gets a thumping majority? Is that going to further destabilise the PM? The current received wisdom is that Blair will go in summer 2007, allowing the party to choose a replacement prior to the autumn conference.

There's always the possibility that Tony could decide to leave when the media hit a quiet patch, rather than letting the pressure build and other problems emerge (which they will, for that is the curse of government) until his departure becomes a certainty next summer. As I've noted before, I have an appalling track record in trying to predict the PM's retirement date, so I'm not going to tempt fate by saying that it will be this summer, but it wouldn't surprise me one little bit.

With the Tories rediscovering their bloodlust and now shamelessly stealing our clothes, we need to reinvent our party.

Before the '97 election, Gordon Brown nailed the lid down on the Tory government by promising to adhere to their spending plans for a couple of years - thus establishing a reputation for prudence and allowing time to build a war chest for investment in public services. It removed one of the big doubts in the public's mind about the ability of Labour to keep taxes manageable. Now, Gideon Osborne is hitting us with the same policy in reverse. Apparently, in 2009/10 (or whenever) you will be able to vote without worrying about whether the health service or education will face huge cuts to repay tax giveaways. The election will be fought on other issues and with our current performance, that isn't good news.

The current party disunity - largely over the Blair issue - is immensely damaging. Unless it is resolved quickly and we can direct our energies towards attacking the real enemies, we are in real danger of squandering the achievements of the past decade. If we waste this, we'll let the Tories back in - probably with the Limp Dims in coalition.

For once, I'm genuinely nervous.

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