Gordon Brown must feel very strange. He is supposed to be in command of a government. He is supposed to be the one who determines who is in and out of Cabinet, what they will focus on and how they should work with the public. All of a sudden, he has no real moral authority.
Two Secretaries of State – the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears – have indicated to the media that they have resigned ahead of a cabinet shuffle which will happen between Friday morning of this week and Tuesday afternoon of next. Two junior Ministers, those for Children, Beverly Hughes, and Europe, Tom Watson, have also resigned. Due to the never ending revelations about expenses, others may well have to – including the Chancellor Alistair Darling. It’s a mess – an unprecedented debacle and a tragedy for Labour. As Oscar Wilde indicated, losing one is unfortunate, but four speaks to negligence.
It will get worse. Tomorrow, it is widely expected, Labour will suffer its worst electoral defeat in municipal and European elections in over twenty five years. The public, tired of this government and its polemic, rhetoric and lack of substance, will show that it is in charge of the political future of those at Westminster and it is in a foul mood. As one veteran observer has indicated, the general public’s mood is that “crucifixion is too good for some people” – and it is Gordon Brown they have in their sights.
Worse, he faces a backbench revolt over a rumored cabinet appointment. Ed Balls, currently the Education Minister, is widely tipped to replace Alistair Darling as Chancellor. A tough enforcer and a close ally of Brown’s, his appointment is being resisted by many in Government and in the party. In part it is because he is too closely allied to Brown, is a bully and is not respected. More significantly, it is a test of the authority of the backbench. If they can stop Balls they can oust Brown. And oust they must do, since Brown, no matter how bad Bleak Thursday’s poll results are, he will not resign.
Plotting is rife at Westminster. Alan Johnson is widely regarded as the safe pair of hands who can steer Labour out of the crisis and into the general election, which must be held on or before June 3rd 2010. The Guardian and other newspapers have been pushing his name as Brown’s immediate successor and he had made no moves to indicate his disinterest. It will take a series of refusals to serve in a new Brown cabinet and significant letters of no confidence from the party over the week-end to force the issue, but egos being what they are, it is doubtful that key party members have the courage to do what is best for Britain and force Brown out. Instead, they will accept the grace and favours of a cabinet post, even if its only for twelve months.
A lame duck Prime Minister (more likely, a lame gannet – a protected Scottish bird) at a time when Britain is in deep economic trouble is not good for Britain. Nor is a government starved of imagination, fresh thinking and concrete proposals for action. Debt ridden, lurching from crisis to crisis with no over-arching strategic intent, the government of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is in desperate need of an injection of fresh leadership. Only a new politics, a new language and a new commitment to smaller, less interventionist and less expensive government will satisfy the people. A reform of how parliament works and of Cabinet is essential.
A new path for the economy which relies less on Government bail-outs, hand-outs and dole and more on entrepreneurship and self-reliance is key. Cutting government programs and reducing the bloated public service and its various illegitimate cousins – non government agencies funded entirely by government – and capping public sector pay are all essential actions to reduce deficits and debt. While Labour chants that the Tories “will cut government programs”, the Conservative party needs to say that it will and will do so with gusto. Its what Britain is ready for. The fact that Brown and his remaining three or four friends want to expand Government shows just how far out if touch he and the party is.
When you wake up on Friday morning you will be witnessing the beginning of one of the most intriguing week-ends of British politics for a quarter century. Watch what happens carefully and witness the beginning of the end and the end of New Labour, for that is what we are witnessing right now.