The unusual suspects

3 Feb 06
DAVID LIPSEY | Tony Blair works on the principle that no policy is worth introducing unless it causes a Labour row.

Tony Blair works on the principle that no policy is worth introducing unless it causes a Labour row.

Bitter opposition from a substantial chunk of his own party is for him the gold standard of evidence that he is doing the right thing.

Even so, he seems to have gone a bit far with the coming Education Bill. Dora Gaitskell, the redoubtable widow of Labour’s leader Hugh Gaitskell, once complained when her husband received a rousing reception for an anti-Common Market speech at a Labour Party conference. ‘The wrong people are cheering, ‘ she said.

With this Bill, Blair’s problem is that the wrong people are booing. He has against him not just the usual suspects — the unreconstructed Lefties (eg, John McDonnell), the antediluvian romantics (Lord Hattersley), the ‘heartlands’ traditionalists (Peter Kilfoyle) and the disaffected ex-ministers (Frank Dobson).

He also has against him the solid centre of his party: Commons and Lords, councillors, trade unionists and party members who are determined to force him to retreat.

Hard times, and harder too because it is not easy to discern precisely what he is to retreat from. The government heralded the proposals as ‘the most radical reform in education since the 1945 Education Act’. But are they?

It is not possible to be sure. The white paper setting them out marks the apotheosis of this government’s preference for warm adjectives and comforting clichés over facts, nouns, and policies. It can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean.

This is not because its authors are illiterate. Ruth Kelly and Andrew Adonis were, in their time, lucid journalists. The incomprehensibility is deliberate. As philosophers have long pointed out, it is impossible to disprove propositions that lack any meaning.

So in countering the white paper, opponents are forced to attack what it might mean — and every time they do so, the government says it did not mean that at all.

The latest noises from Number 10 say this is a lot of fuss about nothing. There is very little in the white paper, the prime minister’s people claim, that is new.

Indeed. Taking schools from democratically elected councillors and handing them to religious fanatics is not new. Seeking to turn them into ‘academies’, that is to say pale imitations of the public schools to which Blair and his chums think all parents aspire, is not new. Introducing selection by the back door, while preserving a feeble code officially discouraging it as the front door, is not new.

The government has been doing all this for years. These are the old Blairite policies, mildly buttressed by the new proposals, which have previously skipped through Parliament on Blair’s say-so.

Why the fuss now? One answer is that Blair has said he will quit before the end of this Parliament. Wisely or unwisely, more and more Labour MPs want this to happen sooner rather than later. There is a palpable sense in the parliamentary Labour Party of waiting for Gordon Brown. Bashing the Education Bill is their means to get rid of the prime minister and install a new one.

This is poor psychology. The prime minister is at his most formidable (some would say stubborn) when all around are attacking him. His great ambition is to prove himself to history. He is less likely to depart under a cloud than he is if the political situation is boringly serene.

In any case, it seems decreasingly likely that defeating his Education Bill is necessary to achieve Blair’s departure. Brown’s defence of the proposals was a significant moment.

Once before, Blair signalled to Brown that he was shortly off, and then reneged. He then cited Brown’s alleged failure to back him as the reason. Brown is evidently not going to make the same mistake twice.

So may we then say that pretty well no purpose is served by voting down Blair’s proposals? A climbdown here, a compromise there, as proposed last week by the Commons select committee, and they could be allowed to serve as his memorial?

They could be, but unless Blair retreats pretty well completely, I don’t think that they will be.

For voting down these proposals should no longer be seen as a piece of political calculation. For many or most Labour parliamentarians it is an existential act.

The vote against Blair is the revenge of the taken-for-granted, patronised, despised, listened-to-less-than-the-Daily Mail, down-with-Islington/Chardonnay, I-didn’t-come-into-politics-to-do-the Tories’-dirty-work-for-them, they-think-there is-nothing-I-won’t-put-up-with-do-they, who-voted-for-Lord-Adonis-anyway group — that is to say, the great majority of Labour backbenchers.

In the face of such emotions, appeals to loyalty and to reason may struggle.

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