The week in politics: Haven't we been here before?

Can we really go through this again? New Labour is our Groundhog Day
Can we really go through this again? New Labour is our Groundhog Day

Blair warns against leftward turn. Brown plots. Archbishop triggers row. Coalition U-turns. Wait a minute…

By Ian Dunt

Haven't we been here before? Are we all just getting older or do things appear to be repeating themselves?

Not so long ago Nick Clegg said he would drag the NHS reform bill back to committee stage and that competition elements would be ripped out of it. Now, in their boorish, public tug-of-war, Cameron has the upper hand, but he's also staked his reputation on what happens to the health service.


Rather daring you might think, and you'd be right, especially when one of the five guarantees he offered was about waiting times, something he refuses to target. You don't want to go staking your reputation around willy-nilly. Blair tried it once with Bernie Ecclestone and he didn't have it to hand by the time cash-for-honours came along.

The speech finally set off the Tory back-benchers, who have been sitting quietly while Clegg abuses competition, their basic ideology, and Andrew Lansley, their favourite pet. By Wednesday, Tory MP Nick de Bois (soon to appear on the politics.co.uk's podcast) was emerging as a ringleader for the Conservative fightback.

Behind closed doors, the salvageable parts of NHS reform are being, well, salvaged. It looked for a while there like the whole thing would be scrapped but instead it's just having its heart torn out. We know from Cameron's speech (more important than it was given credit for, but that's what happens if you wheel the prime minister out every day) that medical staff will be added to the consortia. We don't really know what's going to happen to Monitor and its role enforcing competition, but it'll almost certainly lose that feature. If it not, Clegg won't have any standing with his MPs at all. Wait a minute…

While Lansley was enduring another torrid Commons session of MPs telling him what he already knows (that he's been completely sidelined, has no communication skills and will soon be reshuffled), Labour leader Ed Miliband pointed out, rather innocuously, that Cameron had already broken two of his five guarantees and that anyway the entire plan was basically designed to protect the NHS from himself. That was a good little line. Unfortunately it was delivered at a press conference that appeared to be taking place on a fire escape, with far too many lights for the leader of the opposition to emerge looking respectable.

Things got worse the next day, when his clash with Cameron at PMQs was received with even less admiration than usual. Miliband was all over the place, dribbling the ball into his own goal when there was no keeper in front of his opponent's. Cameron, for the record, was appalling. His evasiveness has become glaringly obvious, even to a child, and he is increasingly unable to control his emotions. But Miliband was so bad there was no point looking at the PM, and the whispers of how long his leadership would last kicked in again.

Part of the reason Miliband was so destroyed in the aftermath of the session was that the prime minister was in such a pathetically weak position. Once again a pivotal policy had been dramatically shelved, this time Ken Clarke's sentence reductions for people who pleaded guilty at an early stage. Alas, his ill-advised comments on rape had created a big enough row that it had to be dropped, so he was called in for a Monday meeting and given the bad news. The coalition averages about one U-turn per fortnight, which is either very 'listening' or very utterly, cripplingly, pathetically weak. Still haven't made my mind up about that one.

The week ended with one of Rowan William's seasonal outbursts, this time on the coalition's lack of legitimacy. People are often very critical of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but they fail to see how good an impression of Britain visitors get from his freakish, magnificent facial hair.

As if that wasn't enough to make you wonder what the date was, Tony Blair returned to British public life. He only ever does this for two reasons anymore: to promote his memoirs (written by a five year old) or to be interrogated over Iraq. It was the former this time, with the former PM warning Miliband not to veer left (surprise, surprise) and telling the Lib Dems that even he, master political strategist from the planet Messiah, could find no solution to their problems. He also said something about the Middle East, but you have to be pretty committed to still take him seriously on that one.

The week ended, fittingly, with revelations about how Ed Balls and Gordon Brown plotted against Blair just after the 2005 general election. I know, right? Who'd have thought. If you want to dredge up some sympathy for the current Middle East peace envoy, then it's worth checking out the letters between him and Brown. It's like being tormented by some grievous, sadistic wife. This plainly isn't news, but it is charming and funny, and there are worse ways to spend a morning than scanning Brown's increasingly deluded messages to Balls. At one point Balls sketched a picture of a gyrating pig. I'm not joking.
 

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