At one point on polling night in 1997, Bruce Grocott, Tony Blair's parliamentary private secretary said to the incoming Prime Minister: "The good news is that you've won by a landslide. The bad news is that landslides happen." What he meant, it seems, is that in the modern electoral landscape in which the old tribal loyalties no longer apply, huge swings by the voters can move in either direction. Maybe that isn't something Labour have to worry about today; nevertheless the Grocott thesis is a useful corrective to the idea that you can ever take the electors for granted. Especially on polling day.
So anything said here in passing about what could happen after tonight carries a big neon-lighted "voters permitting" health warning attached to it.
Consider first, however, what we have learned in this campaign. On one level not a lot. There is quite a long list of subjects that the voters are no wiser about at the end of four weeks campaigning than they were before it. Take Labour, because it's in government and even its opponents expect it to govern again. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous observation that the only time people are truly free is during elections, has much to commend it. But modern politicians have become increasingly adept at limiting our use of even that license, by closing down debate on policy questions that are either divisive or potentially unpopular.
However much commentators may speculate, the electors have been given no hard news about whether, let alone when, there will be a referendum on the euro. Aside from Mr Blair's contention yesterday that President Bush is "not wrong" to raise the issue of missile defence, they know no more about whether Britain will be brought within the protection, or exposed to the risks, of such a system, if one is built. They know very little about how ministers intend to fund the expansion of higher education to ensure, among other things that, in the words of the Labour manifesto, "our world leading universities are able to compete with the best internationally." We can guess at the Government's intentions for the Post Office because it hasn't given the unequivocal commitment to keeping it in the public sector that it has applied to say Channel Four. But we don't actually know whether it is going to privatise it.
Yet all these subjects are already the subject of current work and thought inside government. Having accused the Opposition, on the days when its obsession with the euro came to the fore, of being a single issue party, it has come perilously close to being one itself. Schools, hospitals and the government's economic record matter very much to electors, much more than does the euro to the large majority. But the driving concentration on them leaves quite a lot else unsaid.
Which prompted the question yesterday at Nottingham of whether the Government has the kind of surprise with which Gordon Brown stunned the country and the international markets the Monday after polling day in 1997 when he made the Bank of England independent. We can't be sure, of course. But in any event it is likely that a re-elected Labour government will move very fast in the 48 hours after today. This is more than the routine matter of a reshuffle now certain to see John Prescott go to the Cabinet Office, David Blunkett to the Home Office, Gordon Brown, Lord Irvine (and almost certainly) Robin Cook stay put while Jack Straw replaces Mr Prescott. Perhaps Lord McDonald of Tradeston will become Leader of the Lords with some added busines portfolio, perhaps Estelle Morris will replace her boss Mr Blunkett.
It's also a matter of Mr Blair's determination to tighten his grip on delivery and shake up Whitehall. Culture Media and Sport is likely to stay in being. But social security will be merged with the employment parts of Education to create a new department of work and the family. Though Mr Blair came close at one point in his first term to a radical shake-up of the Home Office, that and the much discussed Ministry of Justice is unlikely to happen for now. And the real test of whether he is serious about ending the status of the Ministry of Agriculture as a client department of the National Farmers' Union or simply rebrand it as the Department of Rural Affairs is twofold: whether, as now seems likely, he transfers to it the competing claims of tourism, and how independent-minded a figure he appoints to chair his planned commission on the future of farming.
The other strand, however, is his attempt to extend his own reach through Whitehall. The reorganisation of Downing Street, the appointment of a senior businessman to chase public service delivery, the reform of the mandarinate, the probable retention of his friend Lord Falconer at Mr Prescott's side are designed less to reduce the Treasury's formidable power over Whitehall than to enhance his own.
Not a lot of this, it's true, is explicit in the manifesto. But that brings us back to the starting point. Which is that there has been a little more to learn during this campaign than appears at first sight. In the last week Mr Blair did clarify a couple of hitherto obscure points about an EMU referendum if there is one including the fact that any question would be "immediate" and not simply seek a mandate for entry "when the time is right." But otherwise he and Gordon Brown stuck tenaciously to their programmed responses.
But the campaign itself was instructive. It's true that as a campaigner Tony Blair isn't a Bill Clinton, who as the American writer Joe Klein has pointed out would have dived back into that Birmingham hospital, choking back tears, to meet Sharron Storer's stricken partner; or, confronted with an unexpected audience of schoolchildren at St. Saviour's School would have ripped up his text and delivered a neutral civics lesson on the importance of democracy instead. Nevertheless he and Mr Brown remain the most formidable campaigners in the country.
The fact remains that in these closing days of the campaign, when the Labour high command at last dare to sense, rightly or wrongly a bigger collapse in the Tory vote than they hitherto expected, something else is apparent. That Mr Blair and Mr Brown, and the unelected lieutenants around them can't do it wholly on their own. Having taken to the road with other ministers like Mr Blunkett, Alan Milburn and the highly rated and consistently competent Margaret Beckett, they have found a little momentum that was earlier not entirely there.
And there are lessons in that for both men. In the less congenial circumstances of a second term, Mr Blair will need a more collective government around him. He will need a greater number of trusted Cabinet allies when the parliamentary Labour Party could be rather stroppier than it was in the first, and in which there are battles with the unions and other interests ahead, and in which a possible euro referendum lies uncertainly on the horizon. We'll come to those problems later in the week. Voters permitting of course.Reuse content