Wednesday, February 11, 2004

if you can't win the argument, change it
Government damage limitation over Hutton has so far taken two lines of attack. Firstly, claim that no-one's interested in exactly why we fought an elective war. Secondly, claim that criticism of Blair plays into the hands of the Tories and everyone should just shut up and rally round.

With polls divided on whether Mr Blair will win a third term, if he chooses to stand, Mr Mandelson acknowledged the turbulent political mood by calling on "the whole party, including those who oppose the prime minister over the Iraq war, to close ranks behind him in the face of pernicious attempts to undermine trust in him".

There's two problems with this. The first is that it falls into the trap of personalizing the issue. Mandelson's assumption is that the fortunes of the Labour government rise and fall with Blair. The question that many party members and supporters now seem to be asking is whether it's time to cut Blair loose before he drags the Labour government down with him.

The second problem is that it relies on an insurgent Tory party to provide a suitably menacing alternative. And it doesn't look like Howard's doing a very good job of that.

Mr Howard’s rating as a leader has slipped since December. Voters are asked to mark leaders on a one-to-ten scale and his rating fell from 4.73 to 4.40. This is behind Mr Blair and Charles Kennedy, both of whose ratings have also fallen this year. Mr Howard’s rating is only just above the level touched by Iain Duncan Smith last summer before his standing began to slide, and has also slipped lowest of the three leaders among their own party supporters.

Being as they're in substantive agreement with most of the Blair agenda, I thought the Tories would run an inheritance strategy: Mr Blair is a very well-meaning fellow, but isn't it time the grown ups were back in charge of foreign affairs and market reforms?

Instead, they've come up with stuff that bears the horrible whiff of obsolete post-modernism, aping the parts of new Labour practice that the public seem to have grown thoroughly sick of. Anyone remember what Howard believes right now, apart from that people should be big? What is the British Dream. Is it a kind of Angel Delight? And the only question to ask a politician promises to "reduce waste" you know that he either has no idea generally or no specific ideas.

So the Tories are still decadent. But that hasn't stopped the people in the Blairite bunker from relying on them to shore up Blair's position. The end may be near.