Leading article: What Blair's triplicate troubles say about Labour

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The Independent Online

It is often written that Tony Blair has suffered his worst week in power. The observation has been repeated to the point of absurdity. Even so, loyal ministers and Blairite MPs do not play down the seriousness of the disparate crises that have erupted in recent days. Each of the damaging stories is separate and unrelated. Yet together they create an impression of a government that is growing complacent with power.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has still not given an adequate explanation why foreign prisoners were released after he had been alerted to the urgency of the situation. In a way that cannot be underestimated, the errors of Home Office ministers and officials undermine the essence of Mr Blair's political positioning in recent months. With unashamed populism, Mr Blair and his ministers have argued in the local election campaign that Labour is tough on crime compared with weak-kneed liberals in other political parties. Now he faces the prospect of a prolonged run of news stories as various media organisations seek to find foreign murderers and rapists who have been mistakenly released.

The persistent heckling of the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, at the Royal College of Nursing's annual conference is less immediately damaging, but raises thorny questions about how the Government handles this pivotal issue in the months to come. It is a perverse political contortion. The Government has invested huge sums in the NHS, and appointed thousands more nurses, and yet it is regarded with such apparent loathing by some of those who work in hospitals. It is quite something for Labour, of all parties, to have lost control of this issue, given the circumstances. Undoubtedly, Ms Hewitt's weak presentational skills are part of the problem. And if she provokes such anger now, what will happen when the more controversial reforms start to bite?

The revelations about John Prescott's affair are a private matter, but the photographs that have accompanied the stories symbolise the complacency that links the otherwise unrelated crises. In one, Mr Prescott is seen cavorting at a Christmas party. Would he have allowed such a pose to be photographed when Labour was hungry for power in the build-up to the 1997 election? Or is this a government that has become too comfortable with the trappings of power?

Although the crises are serious, the Government is not in meltdown. While politically damaging, the nature of the Home Office crisis has been exaggerated in ways that risk fuelling a dangerous xenophobia. The foreign prisoners who have been released have served their sentences; indeed, it is only because of populist legislation introduced by David Blunkett when Home Secretary that foreign prisoners must be considered for deportation. And the NHS is in need of much deeper surgery, which is likely to incur even more anger from the conservative public sector unions.

The broader political situation means comparisons with the final years of the collapsing Major government do not stand up to scrutiny. From the autumn of 1992 to the election in 1997, Labour enjoyed a commanding lead over John Major's divided administration, and increasingly was perceived as a credible alternative government. While the public has warmed to David Cameron, the evidence from polls indicates that voters are not rushing towards the Tories in great numbers.

The Government still has some political space, but recent events suggest that ministers have lost their touch. Mr Blair has always carried light ideological baggage and chosen instead to project himself as a competent leader. This week, his Government has been exposed on serval fronts as incompetent. Its political space will shrink altogether unless Mr Blair gets a grip.

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