Clarke’s shoes are made for walking

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2006

What is perhaps most damaging about Charles Clarke’s “get angry, get even” attack on his successor as Home Secretary, John Reid, is the way the Labour Government appears now to be wholly fixated on bickering amongst themselves.

It’s pretty much a given that, after a long-ish period in government, any party would struggle to appear always be listening to us, the public. But it would be nice if they could at least talk to us, rather than constantly squabbling about who had the car keys last, or whose turn it is to change the nappy.

Charles Clarke was, of course, wrong to cling to office following the row about foreign prisoners not being considered for deportation on release. He should have announced his exit when his department’s systemic failures became apparent. Had he done so, he would have left with his honour and reputation enhanced. Instead his blast at John Reid – whose über-macho style of attack dog politics will surely be his deserved undoing – comes across as the sulky revenge of yesterday’s man.

This episode spotlights two other issues.

First, Tony Blair’s appalling performance management of his own Government. His reshuffles have all-bar-none descended into farce and chaos: whether abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor without consultation, or the Orwellian re-naming of the DTI as the Department for Productivity.

Let’s remember: Charles Clarke and John Reid are (or were) among the most ardent Blairites in the Cabinet, heavyweight checks to Gordon Brown’s supremacy. To set those two at loggerheads by displacing Mr Clarke in favour of Mr Reid displays Mr Blair’s remarkable reverse Midas personnel touch.

But the second, perhaps more fascinating question is this: why did Mr Clarke pull his punch? Why did he not ‘do a Geoffrey Howe’, and stick the knife firmly into Mr Blair’s back? Indeed, why has the Cabinet not yet staged a coup? After all, there surely cannot be anyone in the Labour Party who now believes Mr Blair is capable of renewing his Government? So what are they waiting for?

The Labour cabinet knows what they are waiting for: a Gordon Brown premiership – and that is why many of them are quite happy to keep waiting. For if Mr Blair’s style of management has too often gone awol, Mr Brown’s never even signed up for duty. Obsessive, brooding and secretive, Mr Brown has rarely troubled to spare his colleagues’ feelings.

That those who know the Chancellor best, those who work with him daily, are lukewarm about his accession to the Top Job is a warning to us all. Most of all, it’s a warning to Gordon Brown.