Sunday, 23 March 2008

It all goes off in Cabinet

Two arguments have caused trouble in Gordon Brown's Cabinet during the last week. The issue of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is not yet fully resolved, but it is understood that an 'accommodation' will be made to allow Labour MPs to abstain on parts of the Bill so that their conscience as Catholics is not infringed. One Catholic minister, Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, is belived to have consider resignation, while some aspects of the Bill caused difficulty for transport secretary Ruth Kelly, who is a member of Opus Dei, among others. The Government also faced an Easter Day attack from the Catholic hierarchy which is not a trivial matter electorally given historic links between the Roman Catholic church and the Labour and the fact that communicant Catholics in Britain outnumber Anglicans.

A somewhat less serious but still divisive row involved the environmental friendliness or otherwise of the cars used by ministers. Transport secretary Ruth Kelly was also to the fore here and she also got some publicity this week when she fulfilled a lifelong ambition of riding in the cab of a commuter train.

The argument was about whether to replace British built ministerial cars with Japanese Toyota Prius hybrids. I do intend to test drive the Prius at some time, although whether it is as environmentally friendly as claimed is questionable. There are also issues about its performance. One might also ask, given that it looks like being an increasing commercial success (particularly given road tax incentives) why other manufacturers don't come out with their own version.

Self-confessed petrolhead John Hutton questioned whether importing the Prius sent out the wrong signal to British manufacturers. One might think that this was compatible with the globalisation rhetoric the government favours, but Jack Straw and Ed Balls argued that the move smacked of gesture politics.

Incidentally, a friend of mine was commissioned to write a history of the Government Car Service, one of the more obscure branches of government. It hasn't appeared yet, but I have seen some chapters and it has some fascinating stories.

The Sunday Times went to town with a number of stories on the 'government falling apart' theme, one suggesting that a backbench malcontent had 'broken cover' to suggest an 'Anthony Eden solution', i.e., that Gordon Brown should resign on grounds of ill health. If you probe hard enough, you will always find some peripheral figure ready to make some off the wall statement. Another story suggested that a shift of just 7,500 votes would give the Tories victory. That's like suggesting that it's still artithmetically possible for Liverpool to win the Premiership.

What is interesting about this is that the Murdoch empire does prefer to back successful politicians as they liked to be linked to those in power (perfectly sensible from their perspective). Hence, their approval of Tony Blair. Clearly they think that, like John Major's government, that of Gordon Brown is now rotting like a fish from the head up.

I think that they need to distinguish between disllusionment with the government and enthusiasm for the Conservatives. There is still some evidence of reservations about them. What we could see at the next election is a combination of low turnout and more voting for minor parties. Their share has gone up from three per cent in the early 1950s to nearly a third at the last election. The recent row about MPs' expenses has been damaging to the reputation of the political process and reinforces a popular sense of distance from the 'political class'.

While I think the Conservatives will be the largest party in the Commons after the last election, it is by no means done and dusted, as the Tories themselves realise.

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