Wither John Reid?

by Stephen Tall on May 7, 2007

I’m rather surprised at the positive spin the media are giving John Reid’s bombshell announcement that he will quit when Tony Blair resigns the premiership. (It seems Dr Reid is such an ultra-Blairite that he feels compelled to follow his leader, and pre-announce his resignation, too.)

‘Reid’s resignation boosts Brown’ trumpets The Guardian: “Gordon Brown’s path to a radical rejuvenation of the cabinet was cleared yesterday when the home secretary, John Reid, his great rival, shocked Labour politics by announcing he was quitting the front bench altogether.”

The BBC’s Nick Robinson is also in eulogising form: “If Gordon Brown wants a Tony Blair-style “new dawn” to usher in his premiership, John Reid’s resignation is a symbolic first step – and there may well be more to come.”

Now I’m no fan of Dr Reid, the current holder of New Labour’s ‘Most Authoritarian Home Secretary Since The Last One’ title – a baton originally wielded by Jack Straw, subsequently handed on to David Blunkett, and then Charles Clarke, before it was prised out of his cold dead hands. Dr Reids über-macho, attack-dog style portrays politics at its most tribally, snarlingly, unthinkingly asinine.

And yet… Dr Reid is one of the few heavyweight politicians New Labour has at its disposal, with a wealth of accumulated cabinet experience, and pretty popular with the public (loathe as I am to admit it). For the media to count his loss as a victory for Mr Brown strikes me as a tad peculiar. If anything it reveals the essential truth of one of Mr Brown’s key weaknesses: his inability to work in harmony with enough of his colleagues. Indeed, if he hadn’t antagonised such a substantial proportion of the current cabinet, he would have become Prime Minister long before now.

Dr Reid’s decision to camp outside Mr Brown’s tent reminds me of Kenneth Clarke’s refusal to serve in William Hague’s shadow cabinet way back in 1997, after he was first defeated for his party’s leadership. Many observed then that this would help Mr Hague to remodel the Tories, and to distance his party from the calamities of John Major’s administration. In reality, it denuded his shadow cabinet of a politician of real stature, and diminished Mr Clarke in the eyes of many Tories, who felt he had thrown his rattle out of his pram.

Dr Reid’s decision might be politically (and personally) expedient for Mr Brown in the short-term. But it won’t aid his number one cause: to get New Labour re-elected. That’s a consequence Tony Blair would have seen quite clearly – which is why our current Prime Minister is a proven election winner, and why our next Prime Minister won’t be.