Alan Watkins: Too incompetent to get things wrong

Good order and political discipline have broken down and the Prime Minister will still be blamed for the Iraq war

Monday 29 April 2013 03:11

For some reason, the faith of the political classes in bookmakers is unbounded. The trust is without limit. I have nothing against Mr John Bercow, except that he was until Friday favourite for Speaker. He has now been replaced by Mrs Margaret Beckett.

Well, I do have several things against Mr Bercow, chiefly that he is the most dedicated seeker of publicity since the demise of Frank Longford. But my principal complaint is against the bookies.

People say sagaciously that it all depends on the "weight of money" being invested (as the bookies themselves like to put it) in a particular candidate. Is anyone seriously saying that large sums of money were being put on Mr Hilary Benn to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party?

Yet Mr Benn was the initial favourite. I assume that the bookies had heard of the candidate because they thought they were dealing with Mr Tony Benn's daughter.

They changed the favourite to Mr Alan Johnson, who was a more reasonable bet. Even so, it was Ms Harriet Harman (my own tip) who narrowly won.

I am not giving any tips for tomorrow's over-contested election. The sheer number of candidates indicates the degree to which trust in the House of Commons has broken down.

If I were an MP (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir), I should cast my vote for Sir George Young. He is the only one of the candidates whom I know at all well. He used to call in at Annie's Bar in the 1970s and 1980s, then a more important centre for the exchange of information than it became subsequently. Indeed, when I last looked into the place, it was virtually defunct. In those earlier times, Sir George's tipple was a pint of orange squash, varied occasionally by bitter. No doubt his bicycling activities made him thirsty.

One of Mr Speaker's predecessors, the late Mr Speaker King, went under the impression that dry white wine was a non-alcoholic beverage. Numerous politicians of that generation, journalists too for that matter, embraced the same fallacy. They had, they would say, renounced strong spirits for the sake of their health. At least Sir George stuck to the orange squash.

At this point we may turn to another depressing subject, that of Mr Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister is so incompetent that he is incapable of even getting something wrong.

From the start I was against having an inquiry into the Iraq war at all. I was opposed to the enterprise from the beginning, which is different from what several journalists and the papers were saying or writing at the time.

It seemed to me evident that, if Mr Tony Blair and the Americans really believed that Saddam Hussein had this fiendish arsenal at his disposal, they would not be mounting this attack on him with quite such insouciance – as they would not on, say, North Korea, or, for that matter, Iran. The argument about weapons of mass destruction was accordingly false even within its own terms.

Yet most of them trooped through the lobbies in the divisions of early 2003. One of those who did not was Mr Chris Mullin, who was later made a junior minister once again.

Mr Mullin tells us in his engaging volume of diaries that the reason for

his re-emergence in the Government lay in Mr Blair's ignorance – Mr Blair did not know, or, no one had bothered to tell him. Or Mr Blair did not care one way or the other.

In any case, these events have been gone into forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down. At no stage of the enterprise did Mr Brown exactly cover himself with glory.

A corrupt House of Commons gave its support to a corrupt prime minister, though a lot of people were taken in at the time. There is little more to be said.

At some stage, Mr Brown could have made a dash for freedom. He could have tried to dissociate himself from the Iraq war. It is true that such exercises in semi-detachment are rarely crowned by success. R A Butler tried it out at the time of Suez but was blamed just as strenuously for the failure.

Mr Brown took care to be out of the room when others were making the decisions. But he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Harold Macmillan as Chancellor, not Butler, who stopped the Suez war. Mr Brown could have stopped the war in Iraq. So Mr Brown could stop the war in Afghanistan if he possessed the resolution.

It is too simple to conclude that Mr Brown is in thrall to the Blairites in his Cabinet. Mr Brown has always been a bit of a Blairite himself.

The endless double and even treble counting, the fraudulent accounting, the constant sucking-up to the City (denounced even by the Governor of the Bank of England): nothing has changed much in the past 12 years.

There has, however, been one great change. That concerns party discipline. From the accession of Mr Blair to whenever it was that he began to fall into a decline, the party gave a convincing impression of the former people's republic of East Germany. The disciplinary functionaries were Lord Mandelson (then not ennobled) and Mr Alastair Campbell. Today good order and political discipline have quite broken down. Perhaps that is a laudable thing in its way, for the new model Labour Party was irksome in many respects. But at its peak, it was a formidable, even if disagreeable, fighting force.

See what we have now! Mr Ed Balls contradicts his superior officer, saying that the Iraq inquiry, or most of it, should be held in public.

Mr Alistair Darling contradicts Mr Mervyn King, saying that the banks should be able to make up their own minds without any additional interference from the Government, while Mr Darling and Mr Brown do not show the unanimity which they used to display in public.

Not even Lord Mandelson is the fierce disciplinarian that he used to be in former times. He is more a believer in the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

I have always had a kindly spot for Peter Mandelson. We once enjoyed a dinner in a good-food type restaurant outside Blackpool during a party conference together with some colleagues from the writing trade.

To his credit, he liked talking about Old Labour, in particular about his maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison. He was accompanied by his then adviser, his man of business, someone by the name of Benjamin Wegg-Prosser. I asked whether I could accompany them in their car back to Blackpool.

"No," Mr Wegg-Prosser said in decided tones. Lord Mandelson looked regretful, but shook his head nonetheless.

Since then we have got along perfectly well, but I had to journey back to Blackpool by some other means. We have still to complete the conversation about Herbert Morrison: certainly a more accomplished politician than anyone else in the present government.

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