Matthew Norman: This isn't like the dog days of the Major government. It is much, much worse...

With Prescott, Hewitt and Clarke playing the Three Stooges, Blair hasn't a serious supporter left
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For one who claims to find his critics in the wishy-washy, bleeding heart, woolly-minded, halfwit liberal press so poisonous, the man known to my colleague Simon Carr now as "Cuddles" certainly does his bit to help us out. This week, for instance, he has been thoughtful enough to spare me from having to think up an introduction to this article.

All I need do is repeat the intro from a week ago, which went as follows: "However well inured to the Home Secretary one imagines oneself to be, it is an iron law of British politics that Charles Clarke will invariably dredge up some new way to drop the jaw and leave you wondering again what on earth his game might be."

From this bone-idle columnist's standpoint, then, it is essential that he clings on to his job. Nothing is more time-consuming than that opening paragraph, and if he survives the next few days, I intend to wheel out "However well inured" next week, by when it will have emerged that 127 particularly dangerous paedophiles have been seconded from Broadmoor to solve the recruitment crisis in Sure Start nurseries.

The gravest concern provoked by the present disaster isn't the danger posed by rapists and murderers who should have been deported. All will have been interviewed and deemed harmless before release, and since the parole service is one piston in the well oiled machine that is Mr Clarke's Home Office, we need have no fears about their competence.

The worry is that all the media interviews with which Mr Clarke is now plagued will limit his time for his most important work, which is haranguing liberal commentators about their indolence and stupidity. I had a taste of it a few weeks ago, when he responded to an admittedly robust piece with a 450-word letter. While it touched on a now familiar topic (the cruelty of hacks towards the oppressed underclass that sits in the Cabinet), it also contained a bemused denial of the claim that this most mannerly minister attended a finishing school on the banks of Lake Geneva.

That letter was to prove but an amuse bouche for the munificent banquet to follow. Readers may recall that the "vidiprinter" on poor, condemned old Grandstand, when faced with an outlandish-looking score would spell out the figure - "Chelsea 0: Tottenham Hotspur 11 (ELEVEN)" - lest anyone assumed it was a mistake.

Let me remind you, then, that Mr Clarke's letter rebutting Simon Carr on the matter of civil liberties ran to no less than 14 (F.O.U.R.T.E.E.N) pages. On the eve of the revelation that hundreds of foreign cons have vanished within our borders, the man responsible carved from his languid schedule at least four or five hours to construct this quasi legalistic, pitifully spurious hotchpotch of self-justificatory drivel.

It was said of Bill Clinton that one of his gifts was the ability to compartmentalise - to separate the very different crises facing him, and deal with them individually. Our leaders, lacking Clinton's powers of concentration, prefer to share out the problems, so that while one (jug ears) deals with a specific catastrophe, another (Patricia Hewitt) is publicly humbled by a political nightmare, and a third (bless him) humiliated by a frankly hilarious tale of sexual infidelity.

The problem with this philosophy of public humiliation for the many, not the few, is that it can be too much to take in at once. On its own, the Clarke fiasco stretches credibility close to snapping point. In conjunction with the vision of Hewitt being welcomed by the nurses as Captain Hook is greeted by eight-year-olds at a panto, and those front-page snaps of John Prescott pawing his middle-aged Lewinsky ... it's a political version of Stendhal Syndrome, which causes tourists in Florence to faint when their aesthetic sensibilities are overloaded by all that incredible beauty. You simply cannot take it all in.

Once you've been hauled off the floor, however, and been given a cup of sweet tea laced with Scotch, you are struck by the unfairness of the already hackneyed comparison between the sense of fin de siècle atrophy occasioned by Triple Whammy Wednesday and the end of the Major era. Truly, Sir John doesn't deserve that.

The dog days of John Major was just about where this government was six months ago, with John Reid going on Today every minute to do his cleverer and more menacing version of Brian Mawhinney, and Hewitt chipping in her impression of Mrs Bottomley by parroting statistics no one believes with all the breathy condescension of a third-rate actress on Jackanory in 1957.

Now it is infinitely worse. To compare the Tory sleaze of which Mr Blair made so much in 1997 with the loans-for-honours scandal is equating the theft of a Curly Wurly from a sweet shop to the £50m Tonbridge heist. The cash-for-questions Tories were fantastically obscure backbenchers, and Neil Hamilton merely a better known irrelevance - light years from a serving PM awaiting a call from the Yard about his role as Brains in a gang of covert peerage-floggers.

Politically, meanwhile, John Major's difficulties were unavoidable. With a barely existent parliamentary majority and a party suffering an ideological schism over Europe, the great issue of the time, history may even one day praise him for holding it together as long as he did.

Mr Blair has no ideological excuse for the chaos that engulfs him. With him, all the real damage comes from doubts about his personal honesty and the probity and competence of his closest allies. With Prescott, Hewitt and Clarke playing the Three Stooges this week, and adding their names to the list of thoroughly degraded close allies (Campbell, Mandelson, Milburn, Byers, Blunkett and Jowell), he has not a single significant supporter left who isn't a national laughing stock.

Nothing but chutzpah is keeping him upright now. When he smiles at all, it is the bruised grin of the badly hurt boxer trying to disguise the fact that one well timed punch will put out his lights. And still from Gordon Brown, the silence is deafening. How much longer even he can wait in vain for the incoming towel is anyone's guess, but before too much longer the suspicion that he refuses to strike through cowardice rather than love of party will harden and start to weaken the Cabinet's only strong figure.

What is needed is a good, quick, clean mercy killing, albeit one that would come at a personal cost. Despite his First Epistle to the Thick Civil Libertarians (the finishing school missive) and his assertion in that he's on cordial terms with Gordon, Charles Clarke's career (if he still has one) would instantly be over, and with it would be lost my time-saving standard intro. We must all make sacrifices for the greater good, however, and on balance the loss of "however well inured ..." seems a price worth paying.

Comments