Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Why poor Gordon's authority is shot

As I start writing this piece today is set to be one of the most memorable politically. An incompetent and dishonest cabinet minister announced her resignation this morning, the day before local elections. She is the cabinet minister responsible for policy on local government which makes the timing particularly embarrassing for the Prime Minister. Like so many of the present cabinet she has never actually achieved anything in government and is merely a dedicated party functionary employed at vast public expense to further the interests of the Labour Party. As such her departure, and that of the equally useless Home Secretary yesterday, has special significance to the authority of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.

We all know the conventional theory. The leader of the largest party in the House of Commons is invited to form a government and a change in the balance of seats in the House or in the identity of the majority party leader does not require a general election for the new Prime Minister to be validly appointed. When Brown took over from Blair the same constitutional process occurred as when Eden took over from Churchill, MacMillan from Eden, Douglas-Home from MacMillan, Callaghan from Wilson and Major from Thatcher. There was, however, something different about the practical effect of the change.

Callaghan was the first of those I have named who was elected leader of his party, the others assumed leadership at the invitation of party grandees following meetings in smoke-filled rooms, ordinary party members and even backbench MPs had no real stake in the appointments. Callaghan's election made him beholden to the party machine far more than any of his predecessors because the "grass roots" could say "we put him there so he must do as we wish or we will remove him". In fact this was not much of an influence because he did not command a majority in the Commons and needed to tailor his policies to what he felt he could push through with the help of the Liberal Party. When John Major was elected leader of the Conservatives in 1990 he was under pressure to keep the party happy although the issue of Europe and the growing EUSSR project meant he could only ever seek to satisfy one wing of the party. For Mr Major things changed in 1992 when he led the party into a general election and received his own mandate as Prime Minister. No longer could it be said he was beholden solely to the party for his position.

Although a general election does not involve a direct vote for Prime Minister it does involve candidates standing on a platform that implicitly includes "my party's policies are as set out in our published manifesto and the Prime Minister will be Mr X if we win a majority." A Prime Minister who led his or her party through a successful general election has a personal democratic legitimacy as well as a pure constitutional legitimacy. In answer to his party saying "we put you there" he can answer: "no, the result of the general election put me here". Without that personal democratic legitimacy he will be beholden to his party for his role and will not be able to point to any other factor as the substantive basis for his position. We are now seeing how that affects the practical authority of a Prime Minister who commands a working majority in the House of Commons. He has no ammunition with which to fight discontent in his party because he owes his status to the party and to no other entity.

Those who can exploit this situation best are loud-mouthed party functionaries like Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears. If the cabinet included any people of real substance things might be different because they would be governing for the country rather than for the party. The current shower don't know the meaning of the concept. It was noticeable that on news breaking of Blears's resignation this morning the radio phone-in I listened to featured a number of callers extolling her work for the Labour Party and no one with a single word to say about what she had actually done as a minister. Indeed, her letter of resignation emphasised the party above all else.

When you owe your very existence in office to your party machine, any attack from prominent members of that machine challenges your authority to the core. That is why I believe Hazel Blears' decision to stomp off in a hissy fit is particularly significant and far more significant than that of Jacqui Smith who only ever does what she is told and has neither the personal courage nor the intellectual ability to take the initiative on anything. Hazel Blears is an absurd figure of no substance, a laughing stock of a minister who would be out of her depth in a soup spoon, but she has a loud mouth and the sort of blind, stupid loyalty to a corrupt party that gives her special authority within just such a party. Poor Gordon's authority is so dependent on people like her that we might now be entering the final few weeks of his disastrous tenure as Prime Minister.

Perhaps Hazel Blears has actually done something useful for the first and last time in her self-serving and non-achieving ministerial career.

1 comment:

J Bonington Jagworth said...

out of her depth in a soup spoon

Excellent! :-)