Naturally, Labour strategists made much of the fact that Uxbridge, the county town of that forgotten county Middlesex, is archetypal Tory country. "It was a safe Conservative seat," insisted John Prescott. "And it stayed Conservative." Well, yes. But much the same could have been said of Hove, Scarborough, Wimbledon, Putney - and Shipley, bastion of Tory 1922 Committee boss Sir Marcus Fox. Yet they all fell beneath the scythe of public contempt for John Major's tired administration.
Three months ago, the Blair juggernaut looked unstoppable. Few believed that Labour could lose anything. So it was fine to ditch David Williams, the local guy who had come within 724 votes of winning this "safe Tory seat", and install Hammersmith council leader Andy Slaughter, a rising Blairite (known derisively among party hands as ABBA - "another bloody barrister again"). The punters wouldn't notice, and the Government would gain a useful recruit to the backbench ranks of ministers in waiting: a monstrous regiment already.
But the punters did notice. They plainly did not care for the assumption that party apparatchiks can decide who should be their MP. And they had the last word. It was an interesting shot across the Government's bows. Quite how much it links in with the perceptions of ministerial "arrogance" being assiduously peddled by the newly reinvigorated Conservative Party is difficult to gauge. That there is a connection seems indisputable.
Further, the Government's inept handling of the Uxbridge by-election strongly suggests that its thinking is still trapped in the mindset of opposition. The candidate must be "one of us", a reliable ambassador for New Labour. Nothing can be left to chance. Liberal Democrat voters in Uxbridge found they were canvassed up to seven times each, asking them to vote tactically for Labour. The governing party's final election flyer featured Neil Hamilton, the disgraced Conservative MP, in a desperate attempt to keep the "Tory sleaze" theme alive. "Same old Tory lies" it yelled.
These tactics handed what was left of the moral high ground to William Hague. And he won. As he sets out today for a rabble-rousing tour of small audiences in south-west England - the first shot in a national campaign - the new Tory leader points with evident satisfaction at Blair's horrible week. It started badly, and fell away. Labour's roads programme, scrapping some new routes and saving others, pleased neither conservationists nor road hauliers. It ended with champagne corks popping in Smith Square as the Tories celebrated their win in Uxbridge.
An opinion poll still puts Labour on 57 per cent of political preferences when voters are asked who they would vote for if there were a general election tomorrow. But there will not be such a poll for a thousand tomorrows, and probably many more. Labour can afford to play the long game. Downing Street's spin doctors are preparing for a celebration next Friday of Labour's first 100 days in office, with "an event" and "a dossier of things done". It will trumpet the Government's achievements, set alongside its election manifesto. It will, in the words of Tony Blair to his Cabinet last week, reflect the message that this is a "modern, fair and strong" administration which will not be a 100-day wonder but a government with a programme for a whole parliament "and we will deliver it". Britain, said the Prime Minister, has a new lease of life "and we must maintain it". However, "difficult decisions" lie ahead. They always do.
MINISTERS must hope the vision will eclipse the reality of the past seven days, which have amply justified Harold Wilson's argument that a week is a long time in politics. Blair has been badly rattled by the controversy over Lord Simon, his Minister for Europe, whose pounds 2m holdings in BP, the oil company he chaired before joining government, have sparked controversy over a potential conflict of interests. Blair irritably challenged Hague to "grow up" when questioned on the issue during Prime Minister's Questions. Hague shot back that you know someone who resorts to abuse is losing the argument. It was a points win for the Boy Leader, and the issue continues to embarrass.
Blair's new "guidance" for ministers, requiring them to submit any media interview to approval by his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, has added to the sense that we are entering the zone of government by control freaks. The style may not be so different from the Tories, but the fact that they are doing it more comprehensively than their predecessors excites dismay. Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, has taken up complaints that ministers do not come to the House first with major announcements They leak them to the press instead, thereby diminishing the risks of a parliamentary row.
Then there is the problem of Labour sleaze. Doncaster Labour Party has been suspended pending inquiries into councillors' expenses and booze facilities at the St Leger races, not to mention queries about planning permission for "executive" homes. Two government MPs, Mohammed Sarwar, Glasgow Govan, and Bob Wareing, Liverpool West Derby, are currently suspended from the Commons over other irregularities.
Alan Duncan, the Shadow Minister without Portfolio, has staccato charges : "Labour are totally ill-equipped to stand up to the scrutiny to which they are now being subjected. They don't like a taste of their own medicine. They have discovered they cannot live by propaganda alone. This 'sleaze kick' is kicking back. Blair has been rumbled." It would not be Brother Duncan if he were not over the top, but he has a point. It hits a raw nerve.
What really constitutes good government? Doing everything right away, or steady as she goes? Labour promised to hit the ground running, and did so. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, led the way with his power-sapping gift of interest rate setting to the Bank of England. He followed up this move with the establishment of "super-SIB", the new watchdog over all things financial, which was more of a shock to the City and less acceptable to the Bank's Governor, Eddie George. Since then, there have been many more serious steps in the economic field - such as shaming the finance house companies into coming clean on the mis-selling of personal pensions. In the field of foreign affairs, Robin Cook has battled to introduce the concept of morality to arms trading, and he is well on the way to forcing a rethink in one of the murkiest areas of public policy. At Social Security, Harriet Harman has set up a serious rethink into how we pay for - indeed, how we can extend - the mix of public and private provision for pensions. At the Home Office, Jack Straw has announced so many initiatives to combat crime that lawyers cannot keep track. At Culture and Football, there is hyper-activity on the part of Chris Smith and Tony Banks. At Agriculture, the gentlemanly pace to be expected of Dr Jack Cunningham. In Northern Ireland, the "well, something must be done" of Dr Mo Mowlam. In Scotland and Wales, the steady determination over devolution of Donald Dewar and the disciplined direction of Ron Davies. The Lord Chancellor is promising a Bill of Rights and legalised privacy.
Undeniably, some of the things ministers have done - the little things - have brought general satisfaction: the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence, the murder victim of race hatred; the decision to allow an "adopted" Nepalese boy to stay in the UK; the action to determine the causes of Gulf war syndrome. Not many good causes have failed to find a bidder. And where ministers cannot legislate, they expatiate. There are now 40 government reviews of previous policy, and still counting. Of course, it is often easier for ministers simply to take over what they found in their in-tray after 1 May. So, Harriet Harman is going along with the Tories' plan to sell off the high street benefit agencies. Robin Cook will flog Hawk aircraft trainers to Indonesia because he cannot "back-date" his human rights policy. Jack Straw will open privatised prisons, and David Blunkett will charge tuition fees to university students.
MPs mopped their brows in relief at leaving the futile queues to register 200-plus majorities at Westminster, and went home last Thursday. They will be gone for three months. Labour members have a double duty in the interim: to support the limited home rule being offered to Scotland on 11 September, and Wales a week later. They must then turn up in Brighton in the second week of October to help Tony Blair push through his "Party into Power" reforms that bid fair to strip the party conference of power and hand it to the leadership. For the most part, they left in good spirits. The odd recidivist slipped into the Strangers' Bar to buy cigars for the journey, casually dressed and eyes alert to the possibility of a party whip keeping a late eye on discipline. He need not have worried.
Blair arrived in Tuscany with his family yesterday for his summer holiday, but he left behind his Rottweilers. John Prescott and Peter Mandelson will serve you for the next month.
Labour hits the ground running
Gave Bank of England independence to set interest rates
Overhauled financial regulation system
Introduced payments for students towards tuition fees
Drew up new code of conduct for ministers
Raised pounds 5bn from tax relief on pension fund dividends
Dragged Sinn Fein to the negotiating table
Launched new studies into "Gulf War syndrome"
Agreed an inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence
Introduced morality into foreign policy arms trading
Finalised disciplinarian welfare-to-work programme
Set up 40 reviews of previous government policy
Suspended 2 MPs for irregularities
Shouted at Camelot bosses over "fat-cat" bonuses
Called referendums for Scottish and Welsh devolution
Created 31 new Labour life peersReuse content