Adrian Hamilton: What a gruesome trudge into retirement

Clarke and Prescott will survive because it is more convenient for Blair to keep them than to let them go
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The Independent Online

We should be grateful to Charles Clarke. Not only has he come up with a new doctrine of non-resignation - the "bigger the mess, the more you're needed to stay on to clear it up" - but he has also cast a revealing light on the reasoning behind the decision.

"At the end of the day," he said this week, "my own political future depends on my own strength of character, on the support of my own political colleagues and, most importantly, on the decisions of the Prime Minister. If I lost that support, that would be different."

And there we have it. No mention here of the interests of the public, the reaction of his constituents or the rights of Parliament. No suggestion either that admitting mistakes might instinctively cause a minister to reconsider his or her position. No, the only questions that matter are the support of the boss and one's own determination to hang on in there.

As a statement of political fact, this is accurate enough. You only had to watch Clarke in the Commons yesterday to know that here was a schoolboy who'd been let off detention. He wanted to stay on, the Prime Minister was backing him, they'd thought up up a clever wheeze to put the Opposition on the spot by suggesting all convicted foreigners should be deported automatically. So that was all right then.

And so it will no doubt prove. Charles Clarke and John Prescott will survive not because they have done anything right, nor because they aren't damaged goods, but because it is more convenient for the Prime Minister to keep them than to let them go.

Blair needs Prescott as an amiable buffoon who doesn't threaten him, is useful in keeping relations with the unions and is acceptable to his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. He doesn't want to let Clarke go because he's one of the few allies he has in Cabinet and because his departure would force a far more extensive reshuffle than the Prime Minister wants or Brown would allow.

Fair enough. Politics was always thus. The view of those calling for immediate resignations that there was a past age when ministers did the decent thing is a myth. Principled resignations such as Lord Carrington's over the Falklands have always been the exception rather than the rule. Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden didn't go gracefully. Most ministers in history have been forced out by the Commons vote, not by decency.

Nor is it correct to suggest that we are witnessing some new and shameful game of journalistic witch-hunting. Newspapers have always demanded scalps as a means of proving their power and exercising their partisanship. When Lord Bute's daughter asked John Wilkes, the father of British journalism, why he'd pursued her father so venomously, he answered that he'd never had anything against him personally, "'twas but my game to do so."

The difference with today lies in Charles Clarke's curious approach to responsibility: the obeisance to the Prime Minister as the sole judge of his behaviour. Previous generations would have found that difficult to comprehend. It is partly a reflection of the loss of power of the Commons. If the job of the legislature is to hold the executive to account, it simply doesn't happen any longer, and, judging by David Cameron's performance at Prime Minister's Questions, that is as much a problem of the calibre of parliamentarians as the size of the Government majority. Even William Pitt, who commanded the Commons in a way that Blair might well envy, feared the opposition of Charles James Fox.

But then even Pitt would not have dreamed of having the power over departmental policy, and the arbitrary exercise of this power, that Blair as Prime Minister does. One of the most perverse lines of attack on Clarke by the Opposition this week has been the criticism that he took so long to inform No 10 of what was happening. No, his crime in this regard was that he left if so late to inform the Commons. It is a sign of present politics that the Opposition should accept this paramountcy of the premiership.

Yet it has been the Prime Minister, and his constant instinct to react to headlines, that is at least as responsible for the deficiencies of handling deportation as the incompetency of the Home Secretary and his Civil Service staff. Obsessed with the need to reduce the numbers of asylum immigrants, No 10 directed the attentions of the Home Office away from matters of dealing with foreigners confined here.

Behind all the froth and fury of the search for scapegoats, there lies a real story of the way the Government is now organised and the way it fails its responsibilities. The failure owes something to the politicisation of the Civil Service, the erosion of independence among permanent secretaries and their deputies and assistants. It also owes something to the way in which ministers no longer regard it as their responsibility to run a department, only to present it, and the extent to which they look to No 10 for every decision and policy initiative.

Should Clarke and Prescott resign? Of course they should, on the simple basis that they are now sullied figures and that their continuation in office will only weaken the standing of the Government. If Blair really wanted to look in control of events, he'd get rid of them now. He won't of course. But then their survival says more about the Prime Minister and his gruesome trudge to retirement than it does about a couple of discredited ministers whose time should, on any pragmatic calculation, be up.