John Lennon used to speak of his "lost weekend", a boozy blow-out in the mid-Seventies of which he could remember very little. Lennon has nothing on Tony Blair. The Prime Minister has managed to lose an entire year, the last calamitous 12 months of half-baked policy announcements, the departure of talented allies and, running through it all, an energy-sapping, divisive war.
The second year in a government's term should be the most creative and daring - ministers get into their stride with the next general election still a safe distance away. Successful governments tend to define themselves most clearly in the second year after an election. If Blair's lost year is a defining one, I dread to think what an ill-defined 12 months would look like. We have had foundation hospitals presented as a revolutionary policy and then as a minor reform; the missing weapons of mass destruction; the missing campaign for the euro; and the disappearance altogether of Alan Milburn, Alastair Campbell, Robin Cook and Clare Short. It makes Lennon's lost weekend seem like an act of tedious sobriety.
Not surprisingly the political season opens with the question: can Blair step aside from the wreckage of his lost year? To which part of the answer has to be that even after the crises and setbacks, most previous prime ministers would have died to be in Blair's calamitous mid-term position. The Government is still ahead in most of the polls. The economy is performing relatively well. Unemployment is low and public spending is increasing significantly. The Conservatives have not learnt how to oppose, let alone present themselves as an alternative government.
This is a political context for which a relaunch is, in theory, perfectly possible. As far as the domestic agenda is concerned, the pre-condition is a recognition from Blair and those around him of what went wrong over the 12 months, beginning with his misjudged party conference speech last October. He made the mistake of placing the Government's policies in a provocative but vacuous context. His defining theme was boldness, a weak proclamation that gave no clear sense of purpose. This was probably deliberate. Blair tends to prefer terms that convey a sense of dynamism without placing him anywhere clearly on the political spectrum. As far as he was concerned it was probably an added bonus that being "bold" placed him against some in his party, those who were by implication timidly weak in opposing him.
What followed was a series of policies, some good, others ill thought through, all portrayed as "bold". Foundation hospitals as originally conceived would have almost certainly led to the break-up of the NHS. Now they have virtually no distinctive powers of any significance. Top-up fees for students were announced without much political work in advance. New Labour used to win a broad argument first and then announce a controversial policy. Under the banner of boldness, top-up fees were announced first and then ministers said they would consult and persuade.
One consequence of the 12 months so boldly lost is that Gordon Brown spent virtually the entire time in a neurotically defensive position, trying to prevent some of the more incoherent excesses from taking place. Brown is often New Labour's most creative thinker, but for the past year his political energy has been taken up stopping others from scoring own goals. How do we stop foundation hospitals having the power to spend as much as they like? How do we stop a referendum on the euro being held too soon? How do we stop a rushed announcement on top-up fees? These negative questions were whirling round in what should have been the year when the Government was at its most creative.
The irony is that boldness does not do Blair or his government justice. He has a better, more compelling story to tell, leading a left-of-centre project in a country that voted for one of the most right-wing parties in Europe for 18 years. But the many progressive policies, successfully implemented, tend to be carried out stealthily while any reactionary gimmick is trumpeted as if it will transform the country overnight. This strategy does not work any more. Only the continuing ineptitude of the Conservative leadership is stemming a Tory revival, while some of the Government's natural supporters are so disillusioned that the Liberal Democrats are daring to believe they may win the Brent East by-election later this month, in a theoretically safe Labour seat.
Some of Blair's aides believe that Labour's defeat in the 1992 general election left such deep scars on him and the other pioneers of New Labour that they would never dare to put a more progressive case openly. Blair therefore faces a daunting political conundrum, because his current lack of clear definition is one of the reasons why his big tent is emptying.
New Labour's fatal flaw has not been arrogance, but fear, particularly fear of the past. At last week's prime ministerial press conference there were the usual clichéd questions: Have you ever changed your mind? Will you listen to voters? This is the Prime Minister who has acted partly on the basis of focus groups and the screaming demands of the media. He has not been arrogant enough. Look at the way he has surrendered over the puerile "spinning" debate raging in parts of the media. He has felt compelled to establish an artificial divide between the presentation of government policies and political matters.
Goodness knows how that will work. I predict chaos, more affected outrage from the newspapers and long reports on the BBC about why the "new spin" is much more sinister than the good old days when Campbell operated as a transparently open adviser to the Prime Minister.
Even so, such is the rosy broader political context - a good economy, no credible opposition - that under normal circumstances it would not take very much for Blair to re-establish a commanding authority. Already there are well-developed plans for a meaty Queen's Speech this autumn, one with a more recognisably progressive theme. He can still attract the best policy thinkers to join his team in Downing Street on the assumption he will be there for several years.
The wild card is Iraq. The war cannot be plucked out of the lost year, meaning that much of Blair's recovery depends entirely on events outside his control. They include the verdict of Lord Hutton, the grim chaos of post-war Iraq, and the questionable willingness of the voters and the media to forgive him for believing, or choosing to believe, the most alarmist intelligence on Iraq's weapons. If questions about Blair's role in the war against Iraq are still raging by the end of the year, he is in deep trouble. All Lennon had to do when he lost a weekend was give up alcohol and bake some bread.Reuse content