06 May, 2006

Over and...

The Cabinet reshuffle is the most momentous political event to hit the country since, well, the last one. Which itself says a lot. There continues to be at least one explosive revelation, indiscreet misdemeanour or unforeseen upset bubbling up in Westminster every week, as has been the case more or less since Christmas. The reshuffle, however, tops them all by dint of being the most extreme and malicious one of its kind for at least a generation.

Thatcher certainly never attempted a culling on this scale, preferring to stage manage a sequence of smaller clear-outs during the first half of her reign and a hapless procession of panic measures during the second half. John Major reshuffled almost every month, but that was only ever to replace the latest scandal-hit Tory minister. No, you have to go back to Harold MacMillan's so-called 'Night Of The Long Knives' in 1962 to find a scything of political friends and foes of anywhere near equal stature and bad blood. Though given he himself had resigned within fifteen months, fat lot of good it did.

Perhaps the most illuminating of Blair's actions was kicking Jack Straw out of the Foreign Office and relegating him to the post of Leader of the House of Commons - all the more so given this was precisely the same treatment meted out to Straw's predecessor, Robin Cook. Cook was removed in 2001 because he was a known critic of a military attack on Iraq, and given how Blair had secretly already signed up to just such an action, accordingly his Foreign Secretary had to go. Fast forward to 2006, and Jack Straw, who has been going around putting on the record his rejection of any kind of military attack on Iran, is summarily dispatched in precisely the same manner. And for precisely the same reasons? Time will tell, though whether Blair's still in charge to play Commander-in-Chief the next time we're taken to war remains to be seen.

It also remains in the hands of his MPs, who yet again are supposed to be cooking up a means to force Blair to fall on his sword. The bulk of the evidence suggests Labour's dismal performance in Thursday's elections stemmed not so much from local issues but its national standing and how a perception of incompetence (not something that could be laid at Blair's door for a long time during his period in office, no matter how much you disliked the man) is now rampant in the popular consciousness.

The reshuffle will do nothing to disabuse people of such a perception, given it has promoted more dull figures to the Cabinet, sacked a few decent ones (i.e. the ones who used to speak their minds), and implied that while John Prescott is not qualified to run a specific department anymore, he is simultaneously qualified enough to keep his Deputy Prime Minister title and therefore the right to run the country whenever Blair's on another of his holidays.

The whole thing reeks of multiple logics refusing to resolve into one clear and articulate way forward. What with more Labour MPs now being more outspoken than ever before, we're in a situation akin to the mid-1990s once again, with a party of government that is in office but not in power. Meanwhile the Tories are able to parade around mouthing environmental platitudes and notching up councils by default, and the Liberal Democrats seem to have vanished under the radar.

The entire Labour machinery of power is juddering to a halt, which could mean the next few years will be wasted ones (again, like the mid 90s) where the only legislation that gets passed is the least worst of its kind. Alternatively the reshuffle could be extended to include the only two members of the Cabinet still in the same jobs as the ones they had in 1997. At least that would mean a Prime Minister who didn't make out he had God on his side.

Though precisely which God is another matter.


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