8 May 2006


I'm late on this, but so what. First, on the local elections:
1. They weren't that bad for Labour except in London. What counts is seats and councils retained, not share of the vote, and some 300 seats and 18 councils lost after nine years in national office is not meltdown.

2. It's perfectly possible for a party to do poorly in local elections and then win a general election: witness Labour's 2005 general election victory after a local performance in 2004 that was as bad as this year's. The Tories won general elections in 1987 and 1992 after local election results in 1986 and 1991 far worse than Labour's this year.

So there is no reason for Labour to panic — yet this what it has done, starting with Tony Blair.

His cabinet reshuffle, though certainly drastic, looks as if it was primarily driven by a desire to placate the Daily Mail.

Blair's starting point was the removal of Charles Clarke as home secretary, which can only be seen as a capitulation to the press scare campaign on non-deportation of foreign ex-cons. Clarke did not deserve to go, and understandably refused to be palmed off with a more junior cabinet position. His replacement as home secretary, John Reid, is a depressingly illiberal choice.

The other major victim of the reshuffle was Jack Straw, shifted from foreign secretary to leader of the Commons, for whom it is difficult to feel very much sympathy. He should never have got the Foreign Office in the first place because of his deep-rooted Euroscepticism and has at best been a lacklustre foreign secretary. But who replaces him? Why, none other than Margaret Beckett, like Straw a veteran anti-European with very little expertise in foreign affairs.

There are some good things about the reshuffle: the promotions of David Miliband, Douglas Alexander and Stephen Timms, the move of Alan Johnson to education. But these hardly amount to the massive influx of fresh blood to departmental briefs that the government needed, nor can they make up for the big mistakes.

It is not of course only Blair who has panicked over the local election results. Much of the rest of the Labour Party is now consumed in the argument over when Blair should go and whether he should name a day. It's as yet some way short of civil war. But the number of MPs who appear ready to demand that Blair accept a timetable for leaving is large enough to be significant. For the first time, it's not just the usual suspects — the hard left and other persistent rebels, embittered ex-ministers and other has-beens — kicking up a fuss. They are now joined by previously loyal or at least acquiescent MPs with small majorities who sense that Blair has become an electoral liability. Blair obviously doesn't want to go before late 2008 or even early 2009, but hunch tells me that he'll be off earlier. My money is still on spring or early summer 2007.

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