Matthew Norman: Reminders of Labour greed that are a gift to Cameron

Eds Miliband and Balls are seeking to impose on their colleagues the very control freakery that Blair and Campbell pioneered in 1997

Wednesday 23 February 2011 01:00

Robert Harris cannily identified Mr Tony Blair as The Ghost in his novel of the same name, but even he may not have foreseen how relentlessly that perma-tanned spectre would haunt the party he left in disarray. The week's manifestations of ectoplasmic goo should be enough to soothe a fraught-looking Prime Minister, and it is still only Wednesday. If tomorrow delivers long-lens shots of Mr T and Lord Levy playing pre-donation doubles with Robert Mugabe and Bernie Madoff, and Friday brings news that one detail Sarah Brown left out of her splendidly bowdlerised book is that Cherie left Downing Street with every lightbulb, teaspoon and tap, and half the floorboards, David Cameron could call a snap election on Saturday.

As things stand, he is entitled to chill about his longer-term prospects. The Big Society isn't playing brilliantly (it is an enigma variation for piano, in fact, as performed by Les Dawson), he is walking into an inferno of social unrest laid by his Chancellor, and whether the Coalition will see the year out remains anyone's guess. The electoral future is uniquely unreadable, AV or no AV, and ordinarily a PM steering through such choppy and uncharted waters would have good cause to fret. But there is nothing ordinary about the frailty of the Opposition, as Douglas Alexander's Newsnight appearance on Monday so helpfully underlined.

Jeremy Paxman's first question to our shadow Foreign Secretary concerned The Ghost, whom recent weeks have cast as the Zelig of early 21st-century nastiness. Flick through the photo albums of the age's top-ranked horrors, and there you'll find him, a-grinning and a-cuddling. "Are you proud," Paxo asked Wee Dougie, "when you see pictures of Mr Blair embracing Gaddafi?" Rather than say something cunningly nuanced, such as "No", the pipsqueak's pipsqueak trotted out some over-rehearsed imbecility about it being "the right decision" to bring Libya back into the international fold before it developed a nuclear arsenal. This argument has a stale, musty whiff. I can't quite put my finger on why, but the idea of foreign policy being driven by paranoid fantasy about oil-rich tyrants threatening planetary survival with unsubstantiated WMD programmes lost its Lenor freshness a while ago.

You also, continued Paxo, defend the decision "to allow export of crowd-control equipment worth £200m, which we see being used against his own people. "Well," said Wee Dougie, "I haven't seen the individual licence applications..." It was here that a follow-up was posed, very deliberately, though not for once by Paxo. "Now Douglas, dear," asked the million or so souls watching at home, "WHERE. IS. YOUR. CARER?"

How, you wondered in stupefaction, could someone so infirm be let out without a minder? I'm not sure this is such a cracking idea, but the Eds Miliband and Balls are currently seeking to impose on their colleagues the very control freakery which Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell pioneered in 1997. To this dubious end, every word of any article or broadcast interview must now be sanctioned by high command. Yet they allow on to the telly a man whose response, on observing civilians being assaulted with tear-gas sold to Libya by the government in which he served, was not an expression of human feeling, much less the mea culpa suggested by collective responsibility. Instead, Mr Alexander's reflex reaction was that jobsworthian classic: nothing to do with me, guv, I never saw the paperwork.

Worse followed as Paxo repeatedly inquired if he thought that Gaddafi, whom Mr Blair "clasped to his bosom", should now go. Time and again, Wee Dougie could not say. One had some sympathy, because he won't have seen any visa, as stamped by the Venezuelan embassy in Tripoli, at the time. Then again, here was a potential Foreign Secretary defending the sale of tools of oppression on the grounds that "a key component" of the rules governing such sales is that "they should not be used against their own people". Against whom, you mused, did this pitiful dullard of a technocratic creep imagine Gaddafi might wish to use choicest British-made tear-gas? The tribes of the Amazon delta? Lionel Messi? The Dagenham Girl Pipers?

If it is a sign of Ed Miliband's extreme weakness that he felt compelled to promote this Brownite nebbish to shadow one of the great offices of state – with both the Treasury and home affairs portfolios in the hands of those other Brownite ultras, the Balls-Coopers – it is Blair who spooks him most. The crippling embarrassment of seeing all these foreign-policy chickens flocking home to roost casts a shadow that will not vanish for years. And, as Jimmy Cricket used to say, there's more.

In the past few days, memories have been refreshed about the greed and corruption of the Blair era by two of its leading cameo players. Jacqui Smith's efforts to plug her radio documentary about porn may well get your titters out, but it also reminds us of the fill-yer-boots philosophy that led to her becoming so sadly confused as to where, precisely, she called home. Meanwhile, Bernie Ecclestone's postponement of the Bahrain Grand Prix whisks us back to earliest New Labour, when Mr Blair momentarily thought that accepting that £1m bribe from the Hitler-admiring Great Dictator of Formula 1 would finish him off.

If only. Instead, he survived to spend the ensuing decade getting all loved up with Gaddafi and Mubarak; taking freebies on the Berlusconi yacht to set the example that led to Ms Smith claiming for the means whereby her husband, Richard Timney, could spout from his chimney; and then flitting off to cash in, leaving the Labour Party to the disaster he knew would follow under Gordon Brown.

However confused Mr Cameron may be about his Big Society, one thing he has always understood perfectly is this. A political party discredited after far too long in power cannot begin to recover until it publicly acknowledges the errors and sins of the past, and regrets them with every ounce of sincerity it can synthesise. It took the Tories 10 years in the wilderness to grasp this. Douglas Alexander's wilful refusal to apologise for befriending Colonel Gaddafi and providing him with the instruments of repression suggests that for Labour the process has yet to begin. The Prime Minister, for all his travails, has less to worry about than he should dare to dream.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments