Saturday, 6 June 2009

A fine day Part 1 - neither MacMillan nor Forsyth

When I went to bed on Thursday night the cabinet was one member light of its compliment at the start of the day because James Purnell resigned in the old-fashioned way - by saying "I resign" and leaving office on the spot. It also contained two ministers who had announced they would stand down when the Prime Minister decided to change his cabinet. So they were still in office and garnering a few hours or days of ministerial pay, they knew not which, despite being the lamest of ducks. Their announcements came before Mr Purnell's which gave rise to the delicious possibility of Gordon Brown not changing the cabinet and leaving them in place. He might as well have done for all the responsibilities they had for the formation or implementation of policy.

By bedtime on Friday the upper ranks of our government had been decimated. Four cabinet members exited in addition to those who announced their departure on Thursday, and two non-cabinet members who have been louder spokesmen for the government than many of their more senior colleagues had also resigned.

Those of us of a certain age talk about "the night of the long knives" when Harold MacMillan dismissed seven members of his cabinet in 1962. None of them showed any sign of wanting to leave government to spend more time with their second homes or of being overtly dismissive of the ability of Mr MacMillan to carry out his responsibilities. He sacked them because he needed to present a new face of government under his leadership. He also needed to assert his authority because whispered questions had been asked about his ability to steer the ship. A radical step was taken to say "I'm in charge". Those of us of a certain age also know that "I'm in charge" was a catch phrase used by Bruce Forsyth when the game-show part of a live television programme he presented needed to be pulled back from mayhem to meet time constraints.

Poor Gordon is no Harold MacMillan, nor is he a Bruce Forsyth. His replacement of seven cabinet ministers was forced on him rather than him forcing it. The clearest evidence of this is that he was forced to promote the multiply corrupt Lord Mandelson who is now the holder of the title "First Secretary of State". One can only speculate about what Lord Mandelson had to do behind the scenes to prevent even more cabinet resignations but he must have done something in order to have been able to persuade the Prime Minister to give him an additional half a department and a title that makes him the government's undoubted number two (such a worthy title for the man).

On Friday afternoon, at around four o'clock, a press conference was held at 10 Downing Street with the apparent intention of allowing poor Gordon to explain how his new appointments were part of a master plan of refreshment and renewal and would strengthen the government as it ploughs towards glorious victory at the next general election. Instead we saw a broken man being berated by mocking journalists.

The normal protocol of Prime Ministerial press conferences is based on common courtesy. Whatever the journalists might think about the Prime Minister, he is still the head of government and will be treated with courtesy and reserve. Not on Friday afternoon he wasn't. I was struck by the similarity with the final showdown that caused the Speaker to resign less than three weeks before. Speaker Martin tried to placate critics with a statement only to find that the inadequacy of his words and delivery added fuel to the fire and open rebellion followed on the floor of the House of Commons. The same pattern of behaviour was witnessed on Friday. Normally poor Gordon fails to answer questions or answers them with assertions that are demonstrably false. The journalists know that they have to put up with the answer they are given and will not normally contradict that answer to the Prime Minister's face (although they will do so in their newspaper columns). On Friday they answered back, heckled and openly challenged the truth of answers they were given. It was unprecedented in modern times, just like the overt challenges to Speaker Martin's authority on the 18th of May.

It had been such a fun day that a meal at the splendid local Thai restaurant was warranted. On taking my seat the waiter said hello and asked "has Gordon Brown gone yet?" He is an MBA student who works in the restaurant six evenings a week to pay his way, he hadn't been able to follow events during the day but read the Evening Standard on his journey from college to work and knew the writing was very much on Gordon's wall.

Harold MacMillan's night of the long knives succeeded in giving his government new vigour because he was able to promote people of quality whose own strengths caused the whole government to be strengthened. As a result MacMillan's authority was itself strengthened. The new entrants to Gordon Brown's cabinet are mere makeweights. Peter Hain, forced out of office less than eighteen months ago by exposure of corruption, has returned. Tessa Jowell was demoted twice by Tony Blair and is married to a convicted fraudster, so she is perfect material to be brought back to high office. A junior minister of no great distinction, Bob Ainsworth, has been catapulted into the important position of Secretary of State for Defence despite showing no sign in his seventeen years in the House of Commons of having the gravitas required for a cabinet position. Two party yes-men, Ben Bradshaw and Lord Adonis complete the new entrants to the cabinet. Bradshaw is a former journalist who rose through the ranks by knowing how to evade questions with the slimy charm of Tony Blair, but has never said a single thing of substance on any contentious issue of policy. Adonis is an academic who twice chickened-out of standing for election (once for the Liberal Democrats and once for Labour). He's a clever chap, one of the few in the cabinet, but apparently spineless.

There is no sign of new strength in the new cabinet. Everything points towards poor Gordon simply filling places for the sake of filling places. In one way it makes no difference to him because he dictates policy in every field. All he needs is someone prepared to sign on the dotted line. This "re-shuffle" does not set the scene for the death of the current government, the press conference does.

It's only a matter of time and I am going to enjoy every minute.


Anonymous said...

"undoubted number two"brilliant. Very fitting.

Anonymous said...

I too am a MacMillan fan. But I do question your belief that the Night of the Long Knives greatly strenthened him. He did give up the following year, after all.