For the last few weeks, the Labour backbenchers have taken to calling "More, more," during Prime Minister's Questions. In times past, both the government benches and the opposition would express their noisy support in this way. But their appreciation, such as it was, had to be earned, within its own debased terms.
These days, the most inept populist jibe on the part of Mr Tony Blair is likely to be followed by "More". His followers, no doubt encouraged by the Whips, have been reduced to whistling - or rather, in their case, shouting - to keep their spirits up. No doubt all this shouting is intended more for ostentation than for use, as Edward Gibbon referred to the Roman Emperor's concubines (though the precise reference may be the other way about).
Either way, the average Labour member is going to go on supporting the Government. It will no longer be Mr Blair's government, because he will have gone elsewhere. But will it be Mr Gordon Brown's government? Or will it be Mr Brown's, continued by Mr Blair by other means? For some time now, it has been Labour orthodoxy that it will be Mr Brown's government, and his alone.
To be sure, the line has changed. In the late 1990s, it was different. The women columnists of The Guardian, an easily impressed bunch, concluded not only that this was the best Labour government in history but, more, that this was the best government of any period at all.
Iraq came, and stayed, and it is still there. Other disasters supervened. But there was still Mr Brown. He was always there. Mr Brown was prickly, he was awkward, but he was honest.
True, he possessed a certain tendresse for the Private Finance Initiative, which was likely to bankrupt the National Health Service over the course of time, if it had not done so already. He was equally likely to come up with a wheeze for some new means-tested benefit if this would redistribute money in a fresh form. But was practical socialism not what Mr Brown was about? The problems of the 1930s were different from those of the present day. Mr Brown could certainly see that.
Moreover, Mr Brown was imbued with a proper scale of values, separate from Mr Blair's. Admittedly Mr Brown made various approving noises about globalisation and the supremacy of markets. He was assiduous in his attendance on Mr Rupert Murdoch, attending a conference of Mr Murdoch's managers and forming a relationship not only with the great proprietor himself but also with his man-of-business, Mr Irwin Stelzer, who seems likely to go on supporting Mr Brown, though one never knows about these things.
But his heart was still in the right place: that was the important thing about Mr Brown. At the lowest estimation, the backbenchers would always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse. For who else is there? Mr Jack Straw or Dr John Reid? The latest smart-money candidate, following Mr David Blunkett and Mr Charles Clarke, is Mr Alan Johnson; and where are the others now? They are sunk to the depths of the back benches. Much better stick to the Chancellor you know.
There is, however, a picture in the course of construction which shows the preoccupations of Guardian women columnists alike with well-intentioned Labour backbenchers. It is as if Mr Blair had never happened. Of course they were happy enough to begin with, but all of them - some more quickly than others - saw the spots fall off their spectacles. It would be tedious to go in for enumeration.
But it is as if the age of John Smith has come again. Smith would probably have won in 1997 but we cannot be sure. His support for the European Monetary System and his Shadow Budget in 1992 were both held against him. And Mr Blair's rapport with the English suburbs and the Daily Mail did not exist for Smith as it did for his successor, even though that is now a vanished asset. Still, Mr Brown can hardly bring on the ghost of John Smith.
Mr Brown is more likely to play the patriotic card in the few years that lie ahead. He has already delivered several lectures on the subject of national identity. He makes numerous references to football: not just Scottish football but the England team on all possible occasions.
Last week, in his Mansion House speech, he announced quite suddenly that he would be continuing the UK's nuclear missile programme, at colossal expense. Earlier in the day, at PMQs, Mr Blair was more circumspect, so it was fairly clear that the decision had already been taken: the need was to present it more gently than the Chancellor was later to do.
It may be that, for present purposes, the need is to appear more Blair-like than Blair. He then turns into John Smith Mark II to the approbation of Labour backbenchers and Guardian columnists likewise. But Mr David Cameron's young ladies and gentlemen are aware of the deception; or, rather, they are wary of trying to pull the same trick twice. In 1997 the Conservative Central Office warned us of old demon-eyes, one of the most ridiculous campaigns of modern times.
Besides, Mr Brown was with Mr Blair for the long march through the institutions. Perhaps the most symbolic action of the new government in 1997 was to replace - in theory, it was to add to - the post of party chairman. It was usually filled by a second-ranking trade unionist (the top leaders were members of the TUC council instead). Politicians were sometimes given a year under the hallowed principle of Buggins' turn.
In 1958 the chairman was Tom Driberg, a left-wing MP, a well-known journalist, a High Churchman and a noted molester of young men. On an official visit, a Soviet despot had referred to "your great leader, Thomas Driberg". The Labour comrades were puzzled (the leader was, then, Hugh Gaitskell). No, the Russians objected: the leader must clearly be the party chairman.
In 1997 Mr Blair appointed the "party chairman" without so much as a by-your-leave. The first one was Mr Clarke. The latest is Ms Hazel Blears. Make of that what you will. The short point is that the entire structure of the Labour Party is entirely different from what it once was. It is a command economy. Mr Brown is as much part of this structure as Mr Blair.Reuse content