Reshuffling towards defeat
The image evoked by the prime minister's deeply weird reshuffle, coming just hours after confirmation of a defeat for the Labour Party described in today's Guardian editorial as one of the worst since the second world war, is not that tired old cliché about deckchairs so much as the issue of increasingly mad orders from the bunker into the ruined city above. No, I don't for a moment suggest that there's any comparison — or any other comparison, anyway — between Tony Blair and Hitler. Blair's no fascist; the government he has headed has done very many of the good and necessary things that we're entitled to expect a Labour government to do; he has rare political skills and instincts; he makes ruthless use of his hitherto all-conquering charm and charisma; he has kept the party in power for nine years and three successive elections, an unparalleled achievement for a Labour leader. The party owes him.
But it is now clear to almost everyone except, apparently, him, that the game is up: it's time for him to go. Too many things are going wrong — even leaving aside the towering criminal blunder of Iraq (a bit like 'leaving aside' the giant rhinoceros — "massive powerful herbivorous odd-toed ungulate of southeast Asia and Africa having very thick skin and one or two horns on the snout" — in the living-room). Too many senior ministers in key jobs have been frog-marched by the No. 10 mafiosi into deeply flawed policy commitments which look increasingly unsustainable and which increasingly cast doubt on the political antennae of their sponsors. There have been too many ministerial changes in too short a time: "Dr" John Reid, moving into his eighth Cabinet post, illustrates the desperate character of the latest game of musical chairs. Above all, there have been too many initiatives, too many targets, too fierce a blizzard of new legislation; simply too much frantic change, apparently for change's sake — permanent revolution on a scale that Trotsky and Mao (and indeed Mrs Thatcher) would have exulted in. And with the stresses and fears aroused by unceasing 'reform', comes mounting evidence that not only can't ordinary civil servants and doctors and nurses and teachers cope with the raucous and menacing demands made on them for change and yet more change: they aren't left alone for long enough to get on with the existing systems they are trying to run.
The time inevitably comes when this sense of inability to cope with ever more extreme demands explodes into resentment and then into resistance. The teachers lambast the hapless Ruth Kelly; the nurses (egged on by an insensitive leadership) shout down Patricia[n] Hewitt; the Home Office, struggling to keep on devising, and ramming through an increasingly restive parliament, two or three major new crime and terrorism Bills each year, turns out not to have been able to operate its own legal duty, self- and Blunkett-imposed, to consider all imprisoned foreigners for deportation. Things, to quote another worn-out cliché, fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
But down there in the bunker, the leader, increasingly frustrated by failure and resistance to change, increasingly convinced that his place in history will depend on his success in bringing about reform, reform, and more reform (not least in the hope that so much reform will obscure the sight of that rhinoceros), barks increasingly demented orders, switches his generals from front to front, orders a few to be shot and gives others the option of suicide, and refuses to countenance any talk of a successor, even though the Crown Prince is there in the anteroom drumming his fingers on the table and looking incessantly at his watch. The embattled leader is increasingly convinced that only he can save the faltering campaign from disaster: he has never had any faith in the wisdom of the party that sustains him, scorning its traditional values as unmodern and in need of reform, and now even his formerly faithful band of brothers and acolytes, the couch potatoes of No. 10, begins to fail him. Very well, then: "Après moi…"
Can there ever have been such indecisive and cowardly generals? Bring on the men in white coats!