New Labour's road to nemesis

Impatient of any checks on their power, Ministers just cannot see why they need restraining for their own good

Liberty Watch: Observer campaign
Andrew Rawnsley, columnist of the year
There will come a day when the Government commits suicide. It will do a poll tax. New Labour will perpetrate an act so catastrophic that it will cost the Prime Minister his job. I don't make this prediction with absolute certainty that it is correct. Much as we all like to be proved right, I do not even hope that this forecast of doom will come true. No one would want to inflict on the country something as disastrous and expensive as Margaret Thatcher's instrument of self-destruction.

I make this apocalyptic prediction nevertheless because this is the invariable fate of all governments that enjoy an extensive span in power unrestrained by any serious checks and balances. New Labour is almost certainly set for at least three terms in office. This would be an unusual government - in fact, in the history of power, it would be a unique government - if it did not begin to contract the diseases that afflict people who enjoy a great stretch of absolute control. Ministers wax complacent in the certainty of their own judgment. They swell arrogant in the conviction that their opponents are always wrong. That is the way to perdition. And it is a road on which this government is already embarking.

The intolerance of criticism and the determination to dominate from the centre, well-established as New Labour traits in the first term, have become even more marked since its re-election. Oh sure, I hear the mood music playing from Number 10 that they are loosening up a little. Don't listen to soft nothings about consulting more widely; watch the hard facts of what the Government does.

Any institution with the potential capacity to frustrate the fiat of Ministers has lately found itself the subject of attack. The House of Commons has been under assault. Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson successfully resisted the attempts to oust them as chairs of select committees, but the effort to eject two invigilators who inconvenienced Ministers illustrates the basic instinct to smother even the weak restraints placed on government by backbench MPs.

the excellent proposal to stop the whips fixing membership of select committees - without which there is not much hope of MPs being robustly independent scrutineers of the executive - has been blithely rejected in a manner which should shame the democratic reformer who once breathed inside Robin Cook.

They will succeed in removing Elizabeth Filkin, the watchdog of parliamentary standards whose investigations have caused so much discomfort to so many politicians. The argument against her, though no Minister is quite brave enough to make it in public, is that Ms Filkin has been an over-zealous witch-finder. Even if there is any truth in that criticism, the real game is exposed by the decision to enfeeble her successor by curtailing the hours and resources of the commissioner. In one of those phrases whose piety now mocks him, Tony Blair once committed himself to being 'tough on sleaze and tough on the causes of sleaze'. That ideal has become so wizened by possession of office that New Labour's preferred solution is to be tough on the sleaze-busters.

The lesson of the Tory age - that long-life governments have to take particular care to guard against corruption - has been forgotten already. As has the Prime Minister's promise to preside over a government which would be refreshingly transparent in its decision-making. The Freedom of Information legislation which he once said was 'absolutely essential' to good governance will not now be implemented, even in its diluted form, until 2005. Ministers have failed to produce a solitary plausible excuse for this delay because there isn't one.

More than 30 other countries have introduced freedom legislation, in many cases with much sharper teeth, and in not a single case has it taken anything like so long to activate. Every signal coming out of the Ministeriats tells you that semi-transparency in four years' time is still too soon for them. Measures to facilitate the exchange of information about us between organs of the state are meanwhile being brought in with great alacrity.

Transfixed by short-term advantage at the expense of their own long-term interests, our myopic governors never seem capable of perceiving that secrecy hurts not just the public interest. Ultimately, it is one of their own worst enemies. A licence for bad government is terrible for the governors. The foot-and- mouth contagion might have been ameliorated had there been an injunction on the benighted Ministry of Agriculture to produce prompt and accurate data. Even the Prime Minister was kept in the dark - and staggered when he finally discovered the scope of his ignorance - about the true measure of that crisis.

Tony Blair would have squandered less of our money and his reputation on the Dome of Doom had its dodgy financial and creative foundations been exposed to daylight at the beginning. One of the greatest favours anyone could have done the Prime Minister was to steer him away from that black hole.

Alas, these highly intelligent people just never learn. I detect mounting impatience among Ministers with the very idea that there should be meaningful invigilation of and restraint on their executive power. They offer a 'reformed' House of Lords which will be of such anorexic stature that even Lord Wakeham, the former Chief Whip and fixers' fixer who chaired the royal commission on which the legislation is based, finds it a struggle to endorse the Government's scheme.

Why bother proposing an elected element of 20 per cent? It would have been both more honest and more intellectually consistent to have gone the whole rotten hog by populating all of the claret benches with Place Persons. The tawdry figleaf of such a pathetic elected element only serves to emphasise the ugliness of an upper house which will be predominantly by appointment. The point of an overwhelming unelected second legislative tier - and Tony Blair has been nothing if not candid about this - is to leave it so lacking in authority that it can never mount a sustained challenge to the steamroller majority of the Government.

The postures struck by Ministers speak to a belief that the only legitimate authority is that of the elective dictatorship. Usually implicit, it is made explicit by David Blunkett's mounting assault on the judiciary. To the Home Secretary, the bench is not the guarantor of rights against the arbitrary abuse of power by politicians. The judges are a bloody nuisance attached to protecting what he contemptuously dismisses as 'airy fairy' civil liberties. So far, Mr Blunkett plans to delete from our law one of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, but I have excellent reason to suspect that this Home Secretary's instinctive desire would be to shred the lot.

The principal point of resistance to him in the Cabinet is Derry Irvine whose relationship with David Blunkett is even bloodier than it was with Jack Straw. It is a telling commentary on the drift of this government that the Lord High Chancellor, the soi-disant Cardinal Wolsey to Tony Blair's Henry VIII, is now the nearest approximation to a liberal in the higher echelons of the Cabinet.

Dangerous as the Government's course is, the last people who can be expected to see where it will end are those taking this road. Urgent in their decision-making, and chafing against any restraint, the emasculation of parliament and judiciary seems to them to make ripe common sense. Holding themselves to be good men and women, they simply cannot conceive that they could ever wield their accumulating powers in any way that is not benign. That is the trajectory to an ultimate rendezvous with nemesis. Someone needs to save them from themselves.