23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 8

Memo to Blair: sack Prescott, sack Byers, sack Irvine and move Jack Straw


here was an intermission at Westminster last week. MPs went back to their constituencies, or off skiing. Life returned to normal after three weeks of frenzied handto-hand fighting over Enron, the Sidex steel plant in Romania, and Miss Jo Moore, the former special adviser to Stephen Byers. The gunfire stopped, the smoke cleared, the corpses were picked from the battlefield, and after a while it became possible to discern with the naked eye what gains had been made, and losses incurred.

For supporters of fain Duncan Smith, it was a lugubrious prospect. For it soon emerged that the battle-lines had remained unchanged. The Tories, for all that noise and effort, had not advanced an inch. Last week's poll in the Guardian showed the Tories stuck like a gramophone record at 30 per cent while tarnished Tony Blair had climbed two points to 47 per cent. You have to feel sorty for Duncan Smith. He is like a motorist who tries and fails to start his car on a frosty morning. He tries everything — rolling it downhill, jump leads, calling the AA. But still the bloody thing refuses to budge.

The trouble with the sleaze weapon, which Tony Blair and New Labour used to deadly effect before 1997, is that it can be used only once. The Tories feel this is unfair. In 1997 Tony Blair promised to be 'purer than pure' and to root out 'not just sleaze but the causes of sleaze'. It now emerges that these pious words were merely stated for effect. It is now very easy to argue that Labour today is actually more corrupt than John Major's pre-1997 Tories. John Major's sleazebags — Jonathan Aitken, Neil Hamilton, etc. — were numerous but aberrant. They operated on their own. Doubtless they should have been better policed, but they were in essence rogue traders: as isolated and for that matter as deadly as Nick Leeson at Barings. Furthermore much of the so-called Tory sleaze was sexual, and that no longer counts. The point about Blair is that he has institutionalised corruption by putting party political figures in key roles in positions previously occupied by civil servants at the heart of the British state.

But Tony Blair may not have to pay a political price. One Tory MP in an East Anglian seat spent last week canvassing for Conservative candidates in council elections. He started off by raising the Mittal Affair, but was told each time: 'You lot were just as sleazy.' He soon dropped the subject. The voters have concluded that all politicians are as bad as each other. Mittal does not help the Tories; it simply damages all politicians. The Ogmore by-election was interesting in this respect. There was no revulsion against New Labour in the Welsh constituency — simply a sharp fall in those taking the trouble to vote. If current trends persist, that will be the pattern of the next general election: another three-figure Labour majority and turnout plunging to almost 50 per cent.

There is a lesson for Duncan Smith here. Drawing Labour sleaze to the attention of a wider public is part of his duty as leader of the opposition, but will not win many votes. Health, education, transport and the economy remain the great issues. The Tory leader's real task is to have something serious to say about all of them.

Meanwhile Tony Blair remains relaxed. Those who have spoken to him recently assert that he has never exuded greater confidence. He feels that his government is making progress on health, transport, education, law and order, He thinks that the events of the last few weeks are just distractions from his larger strategic vision. The Guardian poll will only have confirmed the Prime Minister in this judgment.

But Tony Blair would be foolish to take no notice. All the scandals and abuses of the last month could have taken place only under a New Labour government, They all arise from the way New Labour has deliberately merged political party and state. Jonathan Powell, who embodies this unholy fusion, is said to mutter occasionally that he would like to emulate his former Downing Street colleague Anji Hunter and leave to make money in the private sector. The Prime Minister would be well advised to give him a gentle shove out of the door.

In the next few months Tony Blair faces a key decision: who should replace Sir Richard Wilson, who retires this year, as Cabinet secretary. Sir Richard has distinguished himself by allowing New Labour to trample all over the civil service -witness the Jo Moore fiasco. Paradoxical though it might seem, the Prime Minister would do the reputation of his government and British public life a favour if he concentrated on finding a more independent-minded and less pliable Cabinet secretary.

Then there is the question of the looming Cabinet reshuffle. It cannot be delayed for long. John Prescott, deputy prime minister, is an embarrassment at the Cabinet Office. He has nothing to do except get in the way and plot on behalf of Gordon Brown. In the course of the last month Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine has been humiliated over Lords reform and now jury trials. He is arrogant, out of touch and an obstruction to good government. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is a worthy man and a serious politician. He did not want the job. But he has turned out to be the worst foreign secretary that anybody in Whitehall can remember. Stephen Byers's reputation has gone. The decision of the banks to pull the plugs on National Air Traffic Services on Tuesday was a direct consequence of Byers's mishandling of Railtrack. The outbreak of feuding that saw Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith quit the government together — un coup des deux veuves, as they used to say when two duellists impaled each other in a single stroke — shows that Byers cannot even keep order in his own department.

Prescott and Irvine can be kept on the backburner for now. But the Byers situation has become desperate. Tony Blair needs to find a way of sacking Byers, while simultaneously easing Jack Straw out of the Foreign Office and into Transport. That is the department, after all, where Straw hoped and wanted to go once his time was up at the Home Office. On 8 June 2001 he was actually studying transport papers when the call came through from No. 10 and he was told, to his alarm, that he was destined to be Foreign Secretary. It is time to go back to Plan A.