Each administration in recent history has had its own distinctive negative around which critics have coalesced. For much of the Wilson-Callaghan years it was lack of grip; for Margaret Thatcher it was arrogance; for Major it was an inability to lead his party; for Tony Blair, notoriously, it is trust, tragically symbolised in the public mind by yesterday's dignified pictures of David Kelly's funeral.
There is a certain poetic justice in this; for the electorate has arguably reciprocated a lack of trust from those who govern on its behalf. Nearly every bungled attempt to mould public opinion has stemmed from an irrational fear that the voters can't be trusted to form their own views - a fear that sits uneasily with the Government's enormous majority. Indeed, if there is an echo of John Major's travails about the present government, it is without the excuse Major had - a perilously narrow majority.
That Blair has to do something about this - and something beyond merely spinning the end of spin - isn't in doubt. John Prescott was exactly the right representative at yesterday's funeral because he is the most unvarnished senior member of the Cabinet. The question is whether it will be enough. There is a persuasive reading that the adverse electoral impact of the Government's present troubles has been dangerously exaggerated. After all, even at this mid-term nadir, the Tories have still not overtaken Labour.
Some of the more dissident Tories go further, suggesting that the narrower majority for which Labour now seems inevitably destined in its third term will perversely strengthen its hold on power, by robbing the Opposition of its motive to sacrifice an unelectable leader; and that Blair, having escaped personal blame whether or not at the expense of an expiatory sacrifice of Geoff Hoon and/or Alastair Campbell, will go on comfortably to secure a third term.
There is even a theory within some Blairite circles that at this point he will risk, and persuade Gordon Brown to risk, a euro referendum even if it looks likely he will lose, on the grounds that the British people may have to vote no once before they vote yes; and that it will be better to go down in history having fought to locate Britain's destiny in Europe and lost than not to have fought at all. And that he will leave office soon afterwards, win or lose.
What intervenes between now and such a recovery path - and its conference looms as the next big thing after the Hutton inquiry - is the Labour Party. For just as Iraq has proved the rock on which public trust has foundered, so it is the issue that has most tested the loyalty of the party. Of course, the dangers from that quarter - though much greater than ever - can also be exaggerated. Those who would like to see him go, including the proponents of the obvious alternative that is Gordon Brown, still have to resolve the painful dilemma between realising their wishes and causing the kind of destabilising tremor that might extend well beyond the leadership.
But Iraq is not the only issue. In a powerful critique in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Ross McKibbin, a thinker once much admired by some of the more thoughtful Blairites, voices the deep disappointment on the left of centre with Blair's use of his huge majority to promote what he claims is a "bastard Thatcherism", built as much as anything on admiration of the US domestic model - and with which he associates Gordon Brown as well as Blair. Less controversially, but more resonantly, McKibbin goes on to argue that what really upsets people about the Government's spin and manipulation - a phenomenon he accepts as an essential component of modern politics - is the disproportion between the energy of the apparatus and the modesty of the outcome. Mckibbin asserts that New Labour has conformed to the "iron law of bureaucracy" that dictates that "the apparatus looks more and more to protect itself rather than to achieve desirable political goals".
McKibbin is especially good on the marginalisation by New Labour of the old Gaitskellite right. Pointing out that the soft left who formed the mainspring of New Labour - in a handful of cases along with, he might have added, the ultra left - had "much more baggage to ditch" than the Old Labour right, "and did not know when to stop". The point is striking. One of the historical curiosities of the past 20 years has been that most of the latter-day Gaitskellites - those who joined the SDP and those who didn't - who rebelled against Labour's left-wing extremism in the early 1980s now find themselves to the left of a New Labour they thought they had helped to create.
McKibbin's magisterial dismissal of any of the claims to the Blair succession among existing cabinet members, including Gordon Brown, is an exercise of the academic's prerogative. For good or ill, in the real world the durability of Brown as the likeliest successor has been a fact of Labour life. It's rather like the Tour de France. A succession of riders - Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and, most recently, John Reid - have worn the yellow jersey for a stage of the competition, at least in the wishful eyes of those seeking an alternative. But Brown - at least for now - remains the best bet to go the distance and take the trophy.
McKibbin is nevertheless interesting on Robin Cook, his own choice as an alternative to Tony Blair, and as the man to reverse the "opportunism" at home and "adventurism abroad as a junior partner to the United States". Whether Cook will in fact ever be, or choose to be, a candidate, is open to question - though he is surely certain to play a pivotal role in the future debate within the party over its future.
What Mckibbin doesn't point to, however, is a remarkable paradox in Cook's ideological appeal. Although a child of the Labour left who honourably resigned over Iraq, Cook in many ways represents precisely what Blair seemed to be back in 1997; though an opponent of top-up fees, he is a strong backer of foundation hospitals and something of a Blairite on public service reform. More pertinently, he has remained true to the goals of a new pluralist politics, espousing serious democratising constitutional reform, including an electoral system that allows politicians to do more than pitch their appeal to a few hundred floating voters in each marginal constituency, and deeply pro-European.
A very big part of the disappointment that Blair has generated on the centre-left has been precisely a failure to live up to expectations on these latter issues, especially, perhaps, the quest for a more open politics. No doubt around the party conference there will be a few Wilsonian tilts to the cherished goals of the Labour left. The re-admission of Ken Livingstone, to cite just one example, to the Labour Party now looks a necessity. But unless Blair can recover some of the adventurous freshness in his approach to social democratic politics that he was once thought to represent and Cook still does - a big "unless" - then the best he may be able to hope for is to take on the opportunistic mantle of Harold Wilson that he once so boldly rejected.Reuse content