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Monday, 18 November, 2002, 10:42 GMT
Labour's mid-term blues
Nothing funny in that, only the ones with the blues are not the voters, but ministers.
For that would be perfectly understandable.
I could paint you a picture of a dreadful future for this government:
The fire strike runs out of control and Labour looks like a bystander trying frantically to manage death and chaos.
Forced to give in, everybody else wants as much. All the extra money earmarked to improve public services is used up buying them off. Labour can not afford to do what it was elected to do.
Meanwhile the coalition over Iraq breaks down, the UK and the US go it alone. The third time a hospital is bombed a couple of cabinet ministers resign and backbenchers mutter about a leadership challenge.
University top-up fees outrage the middle classes who put Blair in power as no simple tax could.
An unholy coalition of lawyers, lords and liberals smash the changes to the criminal justice system and the only Parliamentary success is banning fox hunting.
The police try to punish those who defy the law but even the Prime Minister is for once speechless as Camilla and Charles are dragged away to the cells.
Back to reality
Except it ain't going to happen.
That is, I don't think it is and ministers certainly do not.
They have too much faith in Downing Street's savvy to believe they'll fall into any of obvious bear traps. They have too much contempt for the essentially tranquillised left.
And you can almost smell the relish in Number Ten for a bit of a scrap.
Mr Tony certainly likes a challenge especially one where he can call in the men in olive drab who unlike Sir George Bain, civil servants and examination boards do precisely what they're told. Quickly.
No. What has ministers worried can be summed up in one word:
Legacy Legacy Legacy
How will they be remembered? And for the best of them it's not just a pompous concern with the history books and the biographies but an attempt to answer the question: "what are we for?"
The question is made all the more painful because the football loving boys of Downing Street have sometimes given the impression of standing in front of an open goal, finger to pursed lips, wondering quite what they're meant to do next.
And no opposition. Recently we in the media have, rightly, pointed out that Duncan Smith has performed well against Blair.
But it is in the same tone that the British press usually reserve for a 90-year-old woman eating an apple with the peel still on, or a member of the royal family running their own bath.
Patronisingly staggered by the failure to fail.
Brink of failure?
No government has ever seen outrageous fortune lay down its slings and arrows and leave the field of battle in such a blatant manner.
All that just adds to a burden of disappointment among some ministers.
Like parents who have watched their child come first in every school exam, become head boy or girl, win both the physics and poetry prize and then spurn university and settle for life as a clerk with a third rate relationship and no conversation.
Some think they are on the brink of failure. A failure to seize a chance to redefine the British people's relationship with the state and public services.
After all they would argue, they have pulled off the trick of taking tax off the middle classes and not provoking squeals of outrage.
But they agonise about the government's failure to define what the left does differently to the right.
Encouraging a zeal for public services, the notion of service over profit.
There has been no real creation of a new civil society. No real attempt to define the cement that holds a civil society together in lieu of the old certainties.
Brownite stuff? Not exclusively by any means.
Number Ten are very interested: fighting for a third term on delivery alone is not enough.
And while the right may have its personality problems nothing is so childish as Labour's faction fighting.
And the alternative political strategy is the current obsession with what its proponents call "security issues".
The Brown question
That doesn't mean checking under you seat for a bomb but, that fearful of the European rise of the far right, the focus should be on a hardline on immigration and crime.
Kissing the butt of potential Nazis may keep you in power but the question will remain: what for?
But I'm afraid the legacy question does boil down to something a lot less exalted.
The relationship between Brown and Blair is going through one of its periodic awful phases.
Because Gordon truly thought that by now Blair would have cracked the public services and gone into the euro and could retire to bask in history's warm glow.
He really thought there was an unspoken agreement that he could take over about now.
But Gordon should be the first to know that history is a hard nut to crack and may need a third or even fourth term.
The government is at a crossroads. Be on the watch for sudden hand signals.
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