The World at Large: The ship of state: the Titanic.

One of the more entertaining pastimes of the last few weeks for me has been watching the fairly catastrophic decline of Britain’s ruling Labour party — although, of course, I’m watching from a safe distance. Some people who are in the thick of it probably don’t find things quite as funny as I do.

In the run-up to recent local elections, usually seen as a sort of rehearsal for national elections, Labour, already in trouble over their unquestioning support of Bush’s unprovoked attack on liberation of Iraq, suffered three pretty unfortunate setbacks.

The best year ever

The most harmless-sounding of these was the small matter of Health Secretary Praticia Hewitt seriously misjudging the mood of hospital workers and being surprised to find herself jeered and booed at by some disgruntled nurses. That’s all run-of-the-mill stuff for a politician, but what had provoked this was Hewitt’s assertion that the National Health Service had had its best year ever just when the NHS was battling with budget deficits and sacking health workers all over the place. Not the best-timed speech in the history of democracy.

The scandal surrounding the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, would be extremely funny if it didn’t have such tragic results. The Home Secretary is in charge of things like prisons and immigration, and the scandal involves both these things at the same time. The news broke that, in the past nine years, over 1000 convicted criminals who were citizens of other countries were released from prison. That’s fine as far as it goes, but they were supposed to have been deported: instead, the Home Office simply forgot about them, and now they don’t know where they are. Of course, these are people whose convictions warrant deportation, so they aren’t persistent non-payers of parking fines, for example: the list includes drugs dealers, murderers and rapists. Some of them, apparently, re-offended.

Charles Clarke merely said something about people taking their eye off the ball, and it’s certainly true that someone else was in office when all this started; but evidence quickly surfaced that Clarke knew about the problem and didn’t do much about it. He originally offered to resign but was told to stay on just long enough, it seems, so that he could be made a victim of the post-election reshuffle. And of course we were treated to the usual display of politicians and civil servants blaming each other and professing complete innocence, which seems to be the way countries (and businesses) are run these days.

Jags, jabs and shags

The funniest scandal, of course, involved the Deputy Prime Minister, the inimitable John Prescott. He was not without controversy in the past: in 1999, a chauffeured car took him 300 metres from his hotel to a conference where he spoke about the need to encourage more people to use public transport (and said that this was for security reasons and because his wife doesn’t like her hair blown about). In 2001 he punched an egg-throwing protestor in the face, although at the time this actually won the admiration of many male voters.

The news that broke this time, though, was that he’d had an affair with his diary secretary. This was funny right from the start, after he had pretty much torn the last Conservative government apart with a blistering (and actually well-deserved) attack on the sleaze that infested the Tory Party at the time. It was also funny because, well, Prescott is not exactly George Clooney: one cartoon had a woman assuring her husband that, if she had to choose, she’d prefer to have Prescott punch her. Headline writers were already having a field day: the man who had previously been known as “Two Jags” and “Two Jabs” now had a new nickname: John “Two Shags” Prescott. The person we all felt sorry for was Mrs Prescott, but then we always did.

To add to the entertainment value, we soon discovered that Prescott had been basically spending taxpayer’s money on this affair, using official cars and official residences for the purposes of, er… well, sleaze. Then we learned that, if the allegations are founded, Prescott had been engaged in inapprorpiate behaviour with more or less anything that was human, female and worked in his office, many of whom (it is alleged) actually did not want his attention at all.

All this happened, in what Patricia Hewitt might have described as Labour’s best week ever, just before the elections which saw Labour lose control of a disastrously large number of local councils. Cue Cabinet reshuffle in which, amongst other things, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was replaced by Margaret Beckett (who immediately said something to the effect of the job being a bit beyond her), Prescott lost his newly-created Department but kept his job, and Clarke was dumped in favour of a Scotsman who, because the Scottish Parliament takes care of its own prisons, is now not technically answerable to his constituents. Blair has surrounded himself with people who might not actually be any good at their jobs, but at least they don’t question his policies. It’s too much to hope, though, that Tony and Margaret Beckett will ever have an affair.

Two tube stations

The Member of Parliament for Holborn and St Pancras (or “MP for two tube stations”, as one of his opponents once called him), Frank Dobson, put his finger on it when he said that this reshuffle amounted to rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. It is an interesting reflection on Tony Blair’s political skills that the Conservative Party, who until just a few months ago looked totally unelectable, now has more than just a fighting chance of winning the next General Election. But then, presumably, the whole circus will start all over again and pretty soon we’ll have Tories caught up in some more juicy scandals.

Cynical? Who, me?

Browse more archived articles