Mr Blair may find that he has finally lost what he really cares about - votes

For many months now, voters have been on the brink of a terminal loss of faith in this government
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The Independent Online

There was always something suspicious about the Government's assertion that the number of asylum seekers had halved in such a brief period, and now we know. To hit the PM's target, ministers appeared to have lied and cheated while bullying their officials. They not only disregarded warnings of malpractice. They encouraged the malpractices.

The Bulgarian government wanted help in tracking down Bulgarian criminals in the UK. The British government was not interested. Some of those criminals might have tried to delay deportation by claiming asylum thus making it harder to reach Tony's target: can't have that. Beverley Hughes also tried to prevent the arrest of illegal immigrants, some of whom could have been criminals. Again, once arrested, they might have claimed asylum, and where would Tony's target have been? No matter if Polish rapists committed murder while Chinese cockle-pickers were drowning; Tony's targets must be met.

It would be interesting if some of those who have been victims of serious crimes committed by illegal immigrants - especially from Bulgaria - were to sue the Home Office, alleging that its neglect of duty had contributed to their sufferings. It is not clear that such an action would fail.

There has been a scandalous abuse of power. There must be a thorough inquiry; there must also be at least one further resignation. If David Blunkett knew what was happening, he is not fit to be a minister, of any rank. If he did not know, he is not up to being Home Secretary. Either way, as he must realise, he has forfeited the public's confidence.

He may also have lost Mr Blair's. A week ago, Downing Street was aggressively reinforcing Beverley Hughes. Now, the wagons have been circled much more tightly, and Mr Blunkett is outside the laager. He has been left to fend for himself. Number 10's priority is to ensure that if the Home Secretary eventually has to go, the Prime Minister will suffer as little collateral damage as possible.

That target may not be an easy one. Home Office ministers did not impose a regime of intimidation, dishonesty, corruption and systematic maleficence because they had suddenly turned into psychopaths. They did so to help Tony Blair meet his targets. So how much did he know about the methods they were using? He now tells us he is going to take a personal interest in immigration matters; what a ringing endorsement of the Home Secretary. Mr Blair had better hope that no evidence emerges of any previous personal interest in the distortion of the figures. The paper trail turned into the fuse which blew Ms Hughes out of office. How many other doors might that fuse reach? The e-mails are now arriving on David Davis's desk at a faster rate than they can be processed.

That e-mail traffic tells us a lot about what has gone wrong with this Government. It is not coming from civil servants who are crypto-Tories, but from conscientious officials driven desperate by disillusion. In 1997, a substantial majority of civil servants welcomed the Blair Government with enthusiasm. They had spent the previous few years chaffing in frustration, because the Tory parliamentary party was paralysing John Major. Good civil servants also welcomed the Blairite's emphasis on delivery. Forget Sir Humphrey; the best officials want to get things done. But then they discovered what their new masters meant by "delivery". It was the paper-boy approach to government; the only delivery that mattered was the next day's headlines.

Good civil servants also believe they have a duty to maintain the traditions and values of the British civil service, which, at its best, has always stood for a rigorous and disinterested approach to the problems of government; for administrative principles untainted by party politics. That did not suit the Blairites. They wanted to politicise everything, and one of their favourite instruments was targeting.

It is not necessarily a bad idea to set targets, which can focus people's minds on what they ought to be trying to achieve. In this case, however, the targets took over. Once they had been set they had to be met, even if this meant sacrificing more desirable objectives, including the truth. Doctors bribed to claim that their patients have given up smoking; top exam grades which no longer mean much; orders to avoid arresting illegal immigrants - that is how Tony's targeting works. It does as much to help the British people as the pigs' targets did for the other animals' welfare in Animal Farm.

Targetitis has become the Blairite equivalent of legionnaires' disease. It poisons offices. Its first symptom is an uncontrollable suppuration of paperwork, with doctors, teachers and policemen all sicklied o'er by the pale cast of form-filling. As the data in the forms must tell the great leader what he wants the voters to hear, much of it is about as reliable as the material which told Stalin how well his five-year plans were working.

The second symptom occurs in the most acute form of the disease, targetitis ministerialis. When this strikes, the sufferer rapidly loses all contact with truth. There follows a decline into cynicism and moral lassitude, accompanied by the progressive collapse of the intellectual faculties. The invalids wander the corridors of Whitehall, babbling the same dual refrain: "What does number 10 say?" and "If this gets out, I've had it". The only known cure for targetitis ministerialis is a prolonged spell on the back benches or, in the case of targetitis prime ministerialis, in Opposition.

That drastic therapy is no longer inconceivable. The long-term political consequences of the past few days could be dramatic. For many months now, a lot of voters have been on the brink of a terminal loss of faith in this government. They are coming to the conclusion that they can no longer believe a word that ministers say. It may be time to revive, apropos Tony Blair, the jibe that was first launched at Harold Wilson. "How can you tell when he's lying? When his lips move".

It would not be easy for any government to recover from such a widespread sense that faith has been breached. It will be harder still for this one, which made so much of the Premier's personal morality. If the voters were to conclude that he was a humbug, hypocrite, sanctimonious fraud and serial liar, new Labour would have lost its main electoral asset.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the Tories had reached a plateau below election-winning altitude and that they ought to devote more energy to negative campaigning. That assessment may already be out of date, thanks to the brilliant assistance which Mr Blair and the Home Office have given to the Tories' negative campaign. Equally, Charles Kennedy's tummy troubles could not have come at a better moment for Mr Howard. The Lib Dems cannot function effectively under a leader who has lost his bottle. Luck is always so important in politics and at the moment it is with the Tories, more perhaps than they yet deserve.

Tony Blair is receiving the luck he deserves.