We have been let down by our leaders

This isn't the normal run of politics. It is a fissure running through the heart of government
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The Independent Online

We've heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, how damaging the Blair-Brown split is for Labour unity. We've heard from the MPs how it might spoil their chances of re-election. What we haven't heard from anyone is how it appears to the country.

We've heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, how damaging the Blair-Brown split is for Labour unity. We've heard from the MPs how it might spoil their chances of re-election. What we haven't heard from anyone is how it appears to the country.

The answer should shame ministers as they obsess about the implications for their own party. Put bluntly, the British citizen has every right to feel badly let down by his government. The public has come together to raise unprecedented amounts of money for victims of the tsunami. The aid agencies sprang to it from the start. But at the top? A prime minister who stayed on holiday and, when he did return, devoted his time to outmanoeuvring his chancellor. A Foreign Office that made a poor fist of looking after its own citizenry, refusing for long even to publish the numbers missing. And what should have been an urgent and compelling start to our period as president of the G8 group has been side-tracked into an internal competition to seize the credit.

Compare that to, say, Australia, whose citizenry raised more money than almost any other country, whose facilities and armed services were put into rapid deployment in providing aid, whose government agreed to the suspension of interest payments for the tsunami-ravaged countries (Australia is one of the biggest creditors), and whose prime minister led from the front within days of the earthquake.

Johnnie Howard may not be everyone's cup of tea. Indeed, for many it must be an evens bet as to whom you would least wish to be represented by, Howard or Bush. But he grasped the issue from the start and went with the mood of his people. As did Bush, after a rather longer delay. Our prime minister stayed abroad for a week, delayed any public appearance for a full day after his return and then chose to give a press conference at precisely the same time as his chancellor was setting forth Britain's programme for Africa as head of the G8.

This can't be dismissed as the normal run of politics, the sort of thing we saw in the quarrels between Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Lawson or Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. This is a fissure which runs through the heart of government. Speak to virtually any civil servant and you will hear a catalogue of moans over how difficult it is to get policy through in view of the jostling for position between Numbers 10 and 11 and the refusal of the two groups to tell each other what they're up to. This, far more than Blair's "presidential style", accounts for the lack of cabinet government in this administration.

And it's going to get worse rather than better. In the early years the pot was stopped boiling over by a rough division of labour. The Chancellor concentrated on domestic policy and the spending departments. The Prime Minister, with the odd foray into home affairs, looked outwards to the world.

Iraq spoiled all that. The Prime Minister, increasingly battered in his international reputation, has started to look to domestic reform and a third term win as his best chance for a place in the history books. His chancellor, eager for the succession, has begun to seek the world stage as a means of widening his reputation. Once the two have started to invade each other's territories, it's almost impossible to see how they can keep from tripping over each other every time they make a move.

Critics of the media - and some of them come from within the media itself - are wont to complain that press coverage is demeaning politics by making every issue so personal. Would that the press were responsible for conjuring these things up. But in this case they are not. If anything the press, sharing Westminster's obsession with party politics, has not paid enough attention to what this quarrel is doing to the effective running of the country.

Nor has parliament been much better at holding the executive to account. It's not just a matter of the size of the government majority, it's also that party leaders seem curiously reluctant to get into the area of personal clashes and ministerial responsibility. If anything, it just too polite to press home the questions which the public feel strongly about - the British victims who weren't helped home, the government aid offers that were too paltry at the start, the deployment of ships and aircraft that might have helped.

In the end, of course, the tsunami disaster led to a bidding match between governments that was anything but salutory. The US competed with the UN for control of the aid effort, the Europeans competed with each other for the largest aid donations, and the media started a game of hunting for those who had offered the least, particularly among Muslim countries.

But this isn't what the public was interested in. In the UN-US struggle, and the US withdrawal of its separate grouping, was a message - that the public wants its leaders to co-operate, not compete, to improve the lot of the world. And that is the worst of what is happening now in the British government.

Africa is indeed a noble cause, and one the developed world has been far too slow in tackling. But if Brown and Blair are going to make every initiative the subject of competitive ownership, then the chances of getting international agreement on the measures needed will be much diminished.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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