Is the Government about to crack up?

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The Independent Online

July has come a little early this year. In fact it has arrived several weeks too soon. We all know what happens in that month. The MPs grow restless. They tend to lose their tempers for the tiniest reasons. The consumption of Pimm's on the Terrace (a guaranteed producer of hangovers) unfailingly causes the effect opposite to that intended: instead of cooling them down, it warms them up. The new, feminine-friendly hours introduced by Mr Robin Cook - that was the theory, at any rate - do not seem to have changed this familiar pattern.

Nor is it a matter of irritability merely at this time of year. It is also the season of dangerous thoughts and freeranging fantasies: of pronunciamentos and rebellions and even changes in the leadership. Roll on the recess! That is what the Whips have always devoutly prayed during this period.

Is what is going on at Westminster an early indication of this well-known summer phenomenon? Or are deeper and more powerful forces at work? Is the Government, in short, on the verge of cracking up - of a collective nervous breakdown that Mr Tony Blair is powerless to prevent with even the most powerful pills which he may have at his disposal? It has, after all, happened before. It is just as well-attested as summer madness, though it comes about less often: once every five years or so rather than once a year.

Thus in 1951 C R Attlee and his colleagues gave up the ghost and effectively handed over office to the 76-year-old Winston Churchill. Six years later the Conservatives collapsed after Suez but were saved by Harold Macmillan who, however, himself suffered a breakdown in 1963. Harold Wilson's government never recovered from the 1967 devaluation, even though it was still erroneously believed that Labour would win the 1970 election. Edward Heath's administration was in a state of more or less permanent crisis. Margaret Thatcher's troubles began with the resignation of Nigel Lawson. For several reasons, John Major's government was disintegrating from the year of its inception.

Mr Peter Mandelson was standing in last week as The Spectator's political columnist. In my dispassionate and unbiased opinion, he has some way to go yet before being able to earn his living in the trade. He tells us that Mr Blair's troubles are not of this sort. The Government is going through a poor spell, a bad run; that is all. Mr Mandelson is Mr Blair's most loyal and obliging backbencher since Ms Caroline Flint was promoted to the Government after a long period of public devotion to our beloved leader. It may be that he believes that the same happy fate will befall him yet again if he persists in his winning ways. Who can tell?

Mr Mandelson does, however, produce one interesting historical precedent. In 1986, he correctly reminds us, the Thatcher government was widely thought to have run out of inspiration. The result was a party conference in Bournemouth organised by Norman Tebbit, in the course of which a parade of ministers set out their stalls; everyone was cheered up; and the Tories went on to win the election. It is doubtful whether Labour's autumn bunfight (in the same place, as it happens) can be made to fill the same useful function. Quite apart from anything else, there is Iraq, which will be bound to be troubling the brothers and sisters still.

Here there is another precedent that can usefully be cited. It is the D-Notice affair of 1967. The precise details need not concern us. Wilson, the Prime Minister, decided to attack the Daily Express and its defence correspondent, Mr Chapman Pincher, over a story about the vetting of cables by the security services. The story was true. A committee of three privy councillors upheld the paper but this was voted down by a whipped House of Commons. It was a disgraceful episode which Wilson subsequently admitted to regretting. In the meantime he blamed George Wigg for getting him into the mess in the first place.

The attack by Mr Blair and Mr Alastair Campbell on Mr Andrew Gilligan (the Pincher-figure) and the BBC is not on all fours but it is certainly comparable. As in all English controversies of a legal-security-political character, the substantive issue is quickly subsumed under - even concealed by - various procedural questions. In this controversy, there are only two matters of substance.

The first is whether Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or, if he did not, whether there were good and sufficient reasons for believing that he did. The second is whether he could deploy these weapons against us within 45 minutes. As to Saddam's capacity to drop a bomb, I am reminded of what a Llanelli rugby supporter once said to me when the opposing outside-half failed ignominiously to drop a goal: "He couldn't drop his ice-cream."

But we are unlikely to learn anything useful about Saddam's capacity to drop bombs, certainly not whether he could do it in 45 minutes; any more than we are likely to learn whether he had these bombs in the first place. Instead the question is already about who altered which documents when, and on whose authority. This proceduralisation - as I say, common form in English rows of this nature - suits Mr Blair's plans admirably. The more he can keep the issue away from weapons of mass destruction and the 45-minute warning, turning it instead to the BBC and the reliability or otherwise of its sources, the happier he will be.

For this purpose, all kinds of would-be bully boys, cut-price versions of Dr John Reid, are being lured from the afternoon drinking clubs, the wholesale fruiterers and the all-night garages of the People's Party in an attempt to frighten the Corporation. One of them is Mr Phil Woolas, the deputy Leader of the House, himself a former television producer, whose stock-in-trade is to try, not always successfully, to exude an air of political menace. He is too small to be menacing.

But instead of employing the Woolases of this world, Mr Campbell could, if he chose, uphold the rule of law and take action for defamation. There are ample precedents, deriving from the Tories' last phase, for ministers and other public servants to be lavishly supported in such actions out of public funds. Equally, Mr Gilligan and the Corporation could take the same action against Mr Campbell and his cohorts. They have already uttered several defamatory words and phrases outside the protection of parliamentary privilege. It will never happen. All that has happened is that Mr Campbell and Mr Blair have made a mistake.