My humble proposal for saving the PM's posteriorSimon Jenkins
The heat is getting to him. Tony Blair admitted at the weekend to "showing fatigue" under the strains of office. He had a job "where a thousand people are kicking my backside morning, noon and night". In such circumstances anyone might look a bit off colour.
But who is it who dares kick the imperial backside? Surely not Jonathan Powell or David Hill or Sally Morgan. Surely not Gordon Brown, who kicks only the crotch. Mr Blair's old friends, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, are at the end of the phone with a reassuring murmur or verbal massage. Surely Mr Blair is not referring to the press.
Harold Macmillan compared his elevation to Downing Street to getting into a new Rolls-Royce. He pushed a few buttons, pulled a lever and the magnificent machine purred into action. It worked. The loudest noise was the ticking of the electoral clock. He did not complain.
Prime Ministers used to observe the seasons. Trollope's rulers would shut up shop for three months in the summer and let the Empire run itself. Baldwin would spend long periods in Biarritz. Macmillan would never miss the grouse moor or a week on a ducal estate. Politics offered difficulties back at the office but, dear boy, they were little and local. Nothing to worry about.
Pundits claim that modern leadership is different. It must be "24/7/12". The Empire may no longer need ruling but somewhere Mr Blair always finds more ruling to be done. The public sector may have shrunk, but what is left would apparently collapse without his nervous attention.
Consider what is currently on Mr Blair's mind, university top-up fees and the Hutton inquiry. In most countries even today these would be matters of subordinate administration. Student finance is for universities and the Education Department. If the Education Secretary is not up to the job, sack him. Yet Mr Blair's meddling has created a monstrosity. Labour is to introduce the first income tax in history based not on what taxpayers earn but on what their parents earned. It beggars belief.
As for Hutton, what merited no more than a normal coroner's inquest was allowed to inflate itself into a public investigation of Mr Blair's reasons for invading Iraq. He had hoped to use Hutton to blame the BBC for Dr David Kelly's death, desperate to deflect attention from his own abuse of intelligence. This hope was absurd at the time and has seemed crazier ever since. It was the act of a serial egotist for whom "l'état, c'est moi ".
Or consider the five top items on yesterday's midday news. They were all one form or another of public inquiry into executive action. They were into the Shipman suicide, the Bank of England's conduct of the BCCI affair, the police handling of the Soham murders, France and Germany's misbehaviour within the eurozone and the Inland Revenue's prosecution of fraud cases. A further report was of a scheme to fund victim support by surcharging motoring offenders.
Each of these items reflected declining trust in traditional public administration. Faith is diminishing in "old government", in a hierarchy of politicians and officials exercising judgment, taking risks and accepting blame. Yesterday saw their replacement on parade, a stamping army of regulators, judges, lawyers and consultants. They are Dickens's public commissioners who "came to reign upon Earth. . . and knock the wind out of common sense".
Every one of the above inquiries will enrich middle-class professionals at the expense of tax-payers. The BCCI case is expected to generate fees in excess of £600 million. The top-up fines on drivers will not help victims of crime since the money is entirely for more civil servants. The Soham inquiry will take police officers and lawyers away from other duties. As for dragging France and Germany to the European Court over the euro, there is no prize for guessing who really wins and who really pays.
Hutton is about blame. The BCCI trial is about blame. The Soham inquiry is about blame. Hardly a day passes without some new inquiry supplanting what used to be the procedures and responsibilities of departmental government. Instead of ministers and officials accounting to Parliament, we now have public inquiries on Victoria Climbie, Gulf War syndrome, A-level marking, foot-and-mouth or prison suicide.
Mr Blair's style is to deflect any passing trouble into these accountability bunkers. But these inquiries are not accountable. They merely allocate blame and add a bit of advice. By downgrading ministers and Parliament, Mr Blair can postpone a crisis or two. But the end result is to attract responsibility on to his own shoulders. He ends up taking the blame and feeling all the heat.
Just now Mr Blair should not feel fatigued. His political ducks are in a row. His Commons majority is normally manageable. He is ahead in the polls even at midterm, which is historically remarkable. His leadership is not under serious threat and his decision to leave the economy to Mr Brown is proving shrewder by the minute. Even his delegation of foreign policy to the White House need cause him no great harm.
Yet Mr Blair seems haggard and oppressed. He gazed unsmiling from the Blair family Christmas card as if recovering from a terrible accident. Here is a man who has fashioned a style of government of his own, focusing attention and power on his own office to a degree unprecented in peacetime. Yet he seems ill at ease.
I am constantly reminded that Mr Blair came to Downing Street with no executive experience. He had not run a business or a public institution or a government department. He knew nothing of delegation. He came from the law, where work is based on private networks of consultants, clients and fees. On coming to office he brought with him two mentors, Mr Mandelson and Mr Campbell, whose background was exclusively in the media.
This triumvirate brought to the heart of British government the responses not of public administration but of the law and journalism. Those responses were short term, bullying and risk averse. There is no doubt who was dominant. Mr Campbell was like the indispensable but sinister Gollum, leading "Frodo" Blair through his daily mishaps across Tolkien's Land of Mordor. Now both Mr Mandelson and Mr Campbell are gone and the fellowship of the ring has dissolved. Mr Blair seems strangely lost. Lawyers are his only Shire.
The Prime Minister indicated on Sunday that he would answer personally for the Hutton report. Why? Only if Hutton calls, in effect, for his head might such a response seem required. What amounts to a coroner's inquest into the death of an official is for the judiciary and perhaps the Defence Ministry. Yet the Prime Minister cannot resist the limelight. Whatever is the business of government must be the business of Mr Blair. That way lies madness.
I make a humble suggestion. Mr Blair should seek out a group of trusted political associates and put them in charge of designated areas of government. They should be competent, able to formulate policy, ready to accept credit and take blame. Mr Blair should meet them regularly but not undermine their status or grab their headlines. He should regard them as plenipotentiary. He might call them "Cabinet Ministers".
Mr Blair should then form a permanent cadre of officials, scrupulously non-political but showing complete loyalty to ministers. Their integrity and independent advice would not be undermined by here today, gone tomorrow political advisers. They would not drop in and out of Whitehall, with a leak or a memoir as they go. Their reward would be not incentive bonuses but a secure career and a pension. This might be called the "Civil Service".
In Downing Street itself Mr Blair should chuck out his orgy of sycophants. He should ask the Cabinet Secretary to form a team of Civil Service high-flyers, whose job would be to co-ordinate decisions and deflect the media and all trouble to relevant ministries. No policy pronouncements would emanate from Downing Street. Mr Blair would be left free to think, breathe and lead. This could even be named "Cabinet Government".
I cannot promise such a system would work. But it survived in Britain for a century before Mr Blair came to power. And it gave us Prime Ministers who did not whinge about "a thousand people kicking my backside morning, noon and night".