Monday, July 10, 2006

What's going on the the PM's head?

Back in May, the day after the Labour Party's worst electoral performance in more than two decades, Blair reshuffled his cabinet. On the same day, I wrote a post called The Bullet-Foot Interface in which I described this attempt to move on and recover from the disastrous showing in the local elections as "shit". My view was that the reshuffle itself was another own goal and that, far from drawing a line under the government's problems, it had created a new one.

I said:
[T]he reshuffle isn't going to close down the whole Two Shags saga. In fact, it's going to make it worse. Much worse. Blair's taken away all his responsibilities but he gets to keep all the perks? Ha ha. The tabloids are going to be all over that like, well, like an overweight Deputy Prime Minister trying to gain entry to a female civil servant's pants. He's going to be prescotted.
Now, I consider myself to be moderately intelligent but I really didn't need to do a great deal of thinking to come up with that prediction. It's fair to say that I was hardly going out on a limb there.

Two months later, Prescott has been humiliated into giving up some of his grace and favour perks but continues to be a running sore for the Labour Party and the government. Next month, when Blair is on holiday, Prescott will be in charge of the country. This state of affairs is ridiculous to the point of absurdity for the vast majority of people. Prescott's reputation and credibility have been utterly destroyed. (It was not, by the way, destroyed by the media as he likes to claim, but by the media coverage of his own actions. Personal responsibility? I've long since given up expecting that of this government. It's never their own fault. That's a given.)

The question is, why did Blair allow this entirely predictable state of affairs to come about? As Jackie Ashely notes today, faced with the decision whether to back or sack Prescott, Blair did neither. Did he really not understand the inevitable consequences of that?

On the day, I speculated that "he's either run out of room to manoeuvre or he's lost any last vestige of ability to judge the public mood. Or possibly both."

As has been noted, Prescott's position as the elected deputy leader of the Labour Party clearly plays a part in Blair's reluctance to sack him. A deputy leadership election would certainly lead to renewed calls for Blair to step down. As such, it's obviously the case that Blair's weakened position is at least partly to blame for the fact that John Prescott will be in charge of the country during the month of August.

On my second suggestion, that Blair has "lost any last vestige of ability to judge the public mood", I'm tempted to change my opinion. Despite the fact that Blair is more divorced from reality by the day, it just seems impossible that he couldn't have known that Prescott would continue to be an object of ridicule for as long as he continues in office. Blair's out of touch but surely even he's not that out of touch?

Perhaps he understood the reaction to the reshuffle all to well. Perhaps his decision not to sack Prescott was partly a deliberate attempt to distract attention from his own failings by leaving another irresistible target in place for the media to focus on. Prescott himself has alluded to this possibility when he said "[a]t the moment I am the shield they [the media] are battering".

The problem with this, and the reason I originally dismissed the idea, is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense given that it was Blair's decision to keep Prescott in place. Surely Prescott's survival is a constant reminder that that Blair didn't have the authority to sack him? That's certainly what goes through my mind. Nevertheless the constant stories surrounding Prescott do appear to be distracting the media from Blair to some extent at the moment so perhaps there is something to it.

The thing is, public perception of a political party is based on any number of issues and is cumulative. If Blair really has decided to leave Prescott in place in order to generate negative headlines in an attempt to deflect attention and prolong his own leadership, what does that say about the way he prioritises his own interests as compared to those of his party? There's no doubt that the constant stories about Prescott are currently doing damage to the Labour Party as a whole. Is this a price Blair is willing to play to prolong the dying days of his premiership?

To sum up then, it seems that there are two options:
  1. Blair has become so isolated that he wasn't able to see that Prescott's reputation was beyond salvaging and that his position was untenable. If the Prime Minister of this country's judgement is indeed so impaired, this has serious implications for us all. What other spectacular misjudgements might he make?
  2. Blair is so determined to prolong his own leadership that he is prepared to do long term damage to the Labour Party in order to do so. This obviously has serious implications for the Labour Party. It also indicates that the PM is maniacally self-serving to an extraordinary degree (even for a politician).
So which do you think it is? Is he isolated from reality to the point of idiocy or is he overwhelmingly motivated by self-interest? Place your bets now!

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Cedalion said...

I hate being obsessed with "I, Claudius," but it does provide a third option. Tiberius deliberately chose Caligula as his successor so that he would be better remembered by the time that the bloodletting was over.

What I'm trying to say is that you should never underestimate nostalgia, and its a strategy in itself to critically undermine your successor so that you look better in comparison, especially when all you are damaging is something you haven't really cared about in the first place, and indeed have critically damaged from day 1.

Tom said...

There's also the Charles Clarke conundrum, that having Prescott too outside the tent pissing in would bring the baying hordes that much closer. Prescott let slip a lot when he talked about being a 'shield', he also presumably knows where the bodies are buried.

As for the Labour Party, I'm sure Blair would see being the Last Labour Prime Minister as a suitable legacy. No one would ever challenge him then.