With the future so dauntingly uncertain the past becomes a tempting guide. Media coverage of splits, sleaze and decay is identical in tone and subject matter to the dying days of John Major’s government. The confident, celebratory assertion of a government’s terminal decline has echoes too.
Yet the original narrative from the mid-1990s is unreliable. The Major government was not sleazy. Mostly there were hard-working and knackered ministers back then, as there are now. There were a few Conservative MPs who were dodgy, and they became a distorting symbol of a government in decline. This was encouraged by New Labour, a tentative force so insecure about what it stood for that it chose allegations of sleaze as a major theme, not having much else to talk about in public.
The Tory scheming for the leadership was also not quite as dramatically resolute as portrayed. Look at how Michael Portillo ran a mile when phone lines were installed on behalf of his embryonic candidacy. He never made a single call when the moment came.
Fast-forward to 2009, and there is no doubt that the current confused, bewildered government is divided on several different fronts. There is a cabinet battle over how to be business-friendly and yet retain a regulated commitment to fairness. There are plenty of other internal tensions too. One of the most vivid was highlighted to me by a senior cabinet minister soon after the decision was taken last month to support another runway at Heathrow Airport.
The minister characterised the fissure as one between progressives and “labourism”. The progressives recognised, among other things, the centrality of the environment and climate change. Those in the “labourist” camp marched to the tunes of union leaders and so-called core voters. On Heathrow, for example, the “labourist” argument would go that “our voters” want cheap air fares, as if that was the end of the argument. The minister suggested to me that the Chief Whip, Nick Brown, a close ally of the Prime Minister’s, personified the “labourist” culture, one that would in his view be fatally stifling and narrowing.
There are plenty of other tensions surfacing too, ones that have a symbolism that extends beyond the immediate issue. The most striking is the differences over what to do with the banks. Shaped by their 1980s political upbringing, Brown and Mandelson are still terrified of the notion of ownership or being seen telling bankers what to do. Other ministers are less neurotic. They do not go to bed at night fearing sleeplessly that if they constrain the banks, voters in marginal seats such as Basildon will compare their actions to a speech delivered by Tony Benn at the Labour conference in 1980. Instead they recognise that voters in Basildon might be grateful.
For a time, as Chancellor, Brown changed the politics of “tax and spend”, a significant achievement, but on ownership he and Tony Blair accepted uncritically the orthodoxies of the Thatcher era. No one else in their government was allowed to think about direction of policy, so there were no questions asked. It is fascinating now watching cabinet ministers wrestle with the dilemmas of the new economic era, investing billions in banks but looking for imprecise regulation to protect British tax payers from any recklessness in the future. Investment without ownership is an awkward concept, like buying a house without having a decisive say over how it will be renovated.
The recent surfacing of differences within the Government is taken widely as a sign of decline, the prism of 1994 to 1997 in reverse. But what we are witnessing is closer to a resumption of normal politics. New Labour was the anomaly, with its fear of any internal debate and its insistence that the only divide was a conveniently tame and ill-defined chronological split between “new” and “old”. Look back from 1994 until recently and few frontbenchers dared to challenge the defensive expediency dressed up as modernising radicalism.
During periods of economic growth it is slightly easier to put politics to one side in this way. The choices are less tough when a government can please the bankers, the businesses and still have money to spend on public services. It was Blair’s genius to project that relatively golden scenario as one that presented him with a series of “tough choices”, the theme of his first conference speech as Prime Minister. Brown or Cameron would give a lot to be making those hard choices now.
Instead, Brown and Cameron – if he wins – face genuinely tough decisions on an almost hourly basis. For Labour the task is more immediate, and suddenly different viewpoints are emerging. The mini-battles are portrayed widely as indications of decay, but thinking, debate, ideas are the lifeblood of politics. They were missing when Labour was supposed to be strong.
Blair was more or less unchallenged at cabinet level as he headed to war in Iraq. Few questions were asked of Brown as he linked arms with his favourite bankers and argued for the lightest of light regulatory touches. There was unity through passive acquiescence.
The dire consequences of this moribund politics are seen in the diaries of the Labour MP Chris Mullin, currently being serialised. During the build-up to the war in Iraq, Mullin bumped into the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, on a train. Over a coffee, Milburn told Mullin he was confident that the UN second resolution would be passed, Saddam would fall and as a result Blair would be in a triumphantly strong position to take on Brown. These are the dangerous fantasies that form when cabinet ministers cease to question and probe.
It is not easy in British politics to conduct internal debate. The stories of splits obscure the substance. But at times there need to be internal battles. Arguments must be tested and resolved. This is what happened when the “wets” and “dries” clashed in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet during the early 1980s in a previous recession. Of course, divisions are symptoms of troubled parties, but they can also be signs of life. If Labour loses big, it will not be because some senior figures dare to challenge the orthodoxies of an era that has passed.