They were saved, in large part, by the death of Winston Churchill, on the 99th day, an event which dissolved Parliament for a week and gave it the respite the exhausted government needed. With that wonderful self- preoccupation that is still characteristic of almost every top politician, Richard Crossman, engulfed in a now long-forgotten row of his own, noted in his diary that the national mourning for the century's greatest Prime Minister "should make things easier for me in this mortgage affair. If we had had the debate on Wednesday I should have had some explaining to do."
But by any standards, the Blair government has quite a lot to celebrate. Even the setbacks seem paltry by comparison. The failure to gain Uxbridge pales beside the gruesome loss of Leyton; the export-threatening value of the pound is still a better problem to have than the sterling crisis that engulfed Wilson in the winter of 1964-5. There isn't much sign, apparently, that even the raggednesses of the past 10 days or so has seriously dented the Government's popularity. An electorate that willed this government so spectacularly into office is still, to judge by the known polls, willing it to succeed.
And so, so far, it has. You can't accuse a government that has surgically amputated the middle-class perk of free university tuition, gambled on the concessions needed to secure a new IRA ceasefire, and raised a pounds 5bn windfall tax from the utilities for the explicit purpose of reintroducing the hopelessly unemployed and unemployable into the labour market, as overcautious. The latter measure, particularly, gives the lie to the notion that the Labour programme is merely a matter of making a Tory free market work better than it did.
And for all the justified unease about the control-freak mentality at the heart of the new Whitehall, this hasn't looked like a government shy about sharing power. The directly elected mayor of London, who will have vastly more people voting for him personally than any other politician in Britain, will be a big figure, probably more famous than all but a handful of cabinet ministers. He will get irritatingly under the feet of the Prime Minister. So, too, will the Scottish first minister. It used to be a truism that ex-chancellors were invariably in favour of surrendering control of interest rates to an independent central bank, but that serving ones never were. Brown has broken that rule. Blair has conceded to the Liberal Democrats, when he didn't need them, the principle of proportional representation for the European elections which Jim Callaghan denied them even when he desperately did. Neither that, nor the even more unheralded decision to confer cabinet committee membership on Paddy Ashdown and his most senior colleagues, means that Blair has at last decided to ensure a truly multi-party Britain by personally backing proportional representation for the Commons (though it's an intelligent bet that the general election after next will be carried out under the semi-proportional Alternative Vote system). But both steps underpin Blair's claim to be the least tribalist politician in the country. And finally, a White Paper at the end of next month will empower British judges, as never before, to oversee the executive through incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights.
This isn't to be blind to those difficulties and faults that threaten to worsen when the British people start to fall out of love with their new government - as they inevitably will. It may not be possible to wish away the sterling problem; the dilemma over whether or not to raise unpopular consumer taxes to slow the boom, could yet survive until the next budget in March. And while the Government was vastly better prepared for office than expected, not all of it has yet perfectly adjusted to governing. It sometimes seems a little as if all the arrogance that ministers kept commendably pent up before election, tends to seep out here and there now it's over. The problem, now happily resolved, of Lord Simon wasn't that he was remotely dishonest or even as a minister anything but an asset. It was that some of his colleagues temporarily failed to see that if he had been a Tory hanging onto his shares, he would have been extinguished by Labour, a victim of those very standards set by the party in opposition. Press manipulation, appropriate in winning elections, isn't always as useful to the slow and lasting building of a reputation in government. There are decisions boldly made, but whose consequences are still in the future, like the one to create the millennium dome. And the tragic death in Paisley of the MP Gordon McMaster has exposed what threatens to be a crisis in the Labour Party in the west of Scotland - one which will have to be confronted before the process of selecting candidates for the new Scottish Parliament begins in earnest. And so on.
But there are still ample grounds for satisfaction in San Gimignano. Sure, to be fully tested Blair needs a real crisis, of the sort Wilson faced all too early, and that Thatcher chronically had in the first two years of office as she battled with her Cabinet over the central tenets of her economic policy. But the 100 days have kept alive the new, and surprisingly solid, hopes invested by the electorate in politics. It's entirely healthy, for example, that Gordon Brown should take the trouble to argue in public with Roy Hattersley about their differing views of what equality means. It's not a new debate, but what has changed is that when Brown says that Labour's task is to reunite a divided society, he now has the chance to prove he's right.Reuse content