David Walker – View from the House

It’s Alastair Campbell’s enthusiasm which gives him away. Back from his holidays, the press secretary’s boss gave an upbeat interview to The Times echoing the seasonal line that it’s time for Labour to emphasise its basic mission and give the nation health and education systems to be proud of. The front-page headline read: ‘I will spend, spend, spend.’

Not quite the message, Campbell decided when he saw the early edition: Labour advisers are getting anxious at the surging signs of boom, especially in housing, and have no wish to see the Bank of England push up interest rates and bring the economy to a shuddering halt. The Times, a soft touch in these Toryless days, obliged and replaced the optimism with something anodyne about the man and his mission.

The point of the story is that Labour is rolling in it. The economy has come good. Rising house prices engender feel-good by the bucketload. The public purse is fit to burst and there is plenty of room for election tax cuts and a generous approach to education and health come the next spending review. On this basis, Blair could weather news such as a resumption of IRA bombing, without significant electoral loss.

So what is being whispered in the prime ministerial ear by his equivalent of the man employed by Roman emperors to keep reminding him he was mortal?

It might have something to do with the growing sense of incoherence about his wider ambitions for remaking the furniture of British political life – reforming the voting scheme for Westminster, the House of Lords, the relationship the new Scottish parliament is to have with London, Liberal Democrat collaboration and, festering away still, the single European currency.

Or it might be simpler. Blair is mortal. If the proverbial London bus did catch him unawares, who is going to pick up the mantle? One of the weakest elements in the New Labour package is succession. Young bland men in ministerial positions (take a bow, Stephen Byers) don’t have it; Gordon Brown has his own agenda; the rest of the cabinet (with the possible exception of Jack Straw) have not emerged from the obscurity that surrounds the floodlight prime minister.

David Walker writes for the Guardian.

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