Losing the will-power to govern

by Stephen Tall on September 7, 2006

After all that hype and excitement, a stunning… anti-climax – the Prime Minister will resign within the year. I’m not sure he can last that long, or anything like. But it doesn’t really matter: he’s yesterday’s man, even if he has a few more tomorrows left in him.

The Bagehot column in today’s Economist puts forward a shrewd and persuasive case why Mr Blair – despite all evidence to the contrary – still thinks only he has what it takes to be Labour’s leader:

[Mr Blair] finds it hard to understand why people have got themselves into such a panic. He thinks that to some extent the agitation for him to quit has become a proxy for debating the party’s future direction. Many within Labour hope that when Mr Blair has gone they will no longer be forced to stomach policies that have increasingly encroached on their ideological comfort zone.

Mr Blair sees this as evidence that “progressive” parties which have been in power for a long time (something Labour had not experienced under any of his predecessors) have more difficulty than right-wing parties in adjusting to the inevitable swinging of the political pendulum. After ten years of Margaret Thatcher, the pendulum swung away from rampant individualism and back towards a desire for greater collectivism. Voters were willing to see their taxes rise to fund better public services and alleviate widening income inequality. But by swapping Mrs Thatcher for John Major, the Tories were able to swing with the pendulum and thus win another term of office, albeit one that turned out to be a miserable experience.

Now, after nearly ten years of New Labour during which taxes have risen and public spending has increased dramatically, Mr Blair sees the pendulum swinging back towards greater individualism. But at precisely the moment when the government should be coming up with new ideas to extend choice and competition in public services, many in the party want to call a halt by reclaiming, as they would see it, the progressive credentials that the government has mislaid in office. Mr Blair’s great fear is that, if this were to happen, the party and the voters would find themselves moving rapidly in opposite directions.

In other words, just as David Cameron is trying to park his tanks on New Labour’s lawn, a post-Blair Labour Party will willingly stand aside to give him more room. The question for Labour once Mr Blair has departed is this – would they be happier occupying their comfort zone of moral superiority from opposition; or wrestling daily with the nuances, responsibilities and compromises of government?

The evidence from this week suggests that the party has quite simply lost the will to be in power.