Greasy Pole – Promises or Threats?

Now that the party conference season is over we can spend the long dark evenings digesting what we learned from all those speeches and votes and, most importantly, all those standing ovations. To begin with we are now aware that all politicians break their promises. We know this because we were told so by Michael Howard, a very important politician who intends to be prime minister after the next election, which can be a promise or a threat and anyway is of absolutely no significance. We have Howard’s word that when he is prime minister all promises will be kept because he will sack any minister who does not keep their word. This is itself a promise which leaves open the question of who will sack Howard if, as was the case with Tory governments in the past, he prefers to cover up for a failing minister instead of getting rid of them.
    And then there was Tony Blair, telling us why he should not admit to anything over the war in Iraq and promising that he will be prime minister for years and years to come – which was most definitely a threat to all those impatient hopefuls in the lower ranks of the Labour Party. In case anyone has any doubts about Blair’s time scale we learned that he has just paid £3.6 million for a house in London, where he can retire to and write his memoirs which should go a long way to paying for the house. Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he said he wants to stay in power for a third term to “give everyone a chance to make the most of themselves”.

As the Labour Party conference opened and before Blair had revealed his intention to stay on and on, there was a lot of speculation that the appointment of Alan Milburn to oversee Labour’s election campaign amounted to nominating him as Blair’s eventual successor. Milburn is one of those tiresome Labour leaders who in a former life as a restless firebrand – others were John Reid, Charles Clarke – encouraged party members to believe that “left wing” policies were the simple and effective way of running capitalism; for some reason this blindingly obvious fact had eluded previous Labour governments. If only there were MPs like Milburn, Reid and Clarke all would be well. There is no need to dwell on how these grisly tricksters have turned out when they had the power to make the kind of changes to society which they once said would be so easy. Before he resigned from the government Milburn’s fire had been effectively doused by the cold waters of his ambition.
    However the matter of the succession may not be as straightforward as Milburn would like it to be. For one thing, Blair’s announcement will have been like a starting pistol to all those other aspirants on the Labour benches. It is safe to assume that there are only a very, very few of them who do not see themselves as prime minister material and who will, therefore, be already planning their campaign to fill Blair’s shoes. None of them will be pleased to accept Milburn, or anyone else, as the anointed heir to Number Ten. Their reaction will be to do their best, to form any alliance, to pull any trick, to compose the most damaging briefings, to undermine Milburn’s standing.
    There have been precedents for this. One of the more recent was John Moore. Does anyone now remember him? In fact in the early days of the Thatcher governments he was clearly Thatcher’s favourite to take over from her when she chose to go. Remorselessly he climbed up the ranks until, in mid 1987, he was in charge of the big spending, publicly spotlighted, Department of Health and Social Security, whose spread of authority was as large as the title implied. For Moore all things seemed possible. Then his rivals got to work on him; he lasted about a year in the job, until he got sick under the stress of it all. Humiliatingly, he lost his voice and fainted in the Cabinet. Thatcher treated him with contempt, splitting his ministry in two and giving responsibility for Health to Ken Clarke. Moore now had no future in politics; he left the Commons in 1992, took a life peerage and descended into an appropriate obscurity.

When the Labour Party won the 1945 general election it was presumed that their leader, Clement Attlee, would be the one going to Buckingham Palace to take part in the ritual of the king pretending to ask him to form a government to run British capitalism in the style to which is was accustomed . But snapping at Attlee’s heels was his deputy leader, Herbert Morrison. Attlee came over as a mousy, unassuming man, the sort whose wife would run him around the country in a little Austin Seven car. Morrison was the more dynamic, he made much of his Cockney origins and he “lived politics, ate politics, dreamed politics”. He was responsible for the manifesto on which Labour had won the 1945 election and he was skilled at composing the phrases which were so useful in reconciling the working class to the fact that their lives under a Labour government were as hard as they would have been under the Tories. A certain amount of smart money was on Morrison, who was so sure he should be prime minister that before Attlee had a chance to go to the Palace he told him to wait until the Parliamentary Labour Party had re-elected him (or not, as Morrison hoped) as leader. Attlee ignored this advice, climbed into the Austin Seven and came back as prime minister (the PLP re-elected him on the following day). This was a considerable blow to Morrison, who throughout those governments continued to nurse his ambition. Year after year, through one crisis after another, Attlee frustrated him by simply staying in the job himself. Finally, in December 1955 when Morrison was 67, Attlee resigned in the knowledge that Morrison would not win a leadership election. He was easily beaten by Hugh Gaitskell, which persuaded him to stop living, eating and breathing politics and to retire sulkily to the House of Lords.
    There was a similar situation in the post-war Tory party, where R.A. Butler nursed his ambition to be prime minister over many years before  reality compelled him to accept that he would never make it. His first chance came in early 1957, when Anthony Eden resigned, sick and worn out by the collapse of his Suez policy. At a Cabinet meeting in January that year Eden was in tears; after all his years in the dirty trade of diplomacy he had problems in facing the fact that British capitalism was no longer a mighty imperial force. The obvious successor – after all he had been Minister of Education, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the Commons – was Butler. Only one national newspaper had doubts about this. In the event the Tory party – as unwilling as Eden had been to face historical reality – made Butler something of a scapegoat for the debacle of Suez. Harold Macmillan was preferred as a better prospect for digging the party out of the hole it was in; at a meeting of the 1922 Committee he had made all the right noises about Britain still being a world power. It was Ted Heath’s job to convey the news to Butler, who was “dumbfounded”; he could never bring himself to accept being upstaged in that way.

He was no better prepared for his second chance in 1963, when Macmillan retired after a serious operation. This happened during that year’s Tory conference, which took on a particularly frenzied flavour as a result of the leadership contest going on before the members’ unaccustomed eyes. From this great surge of hysteria a dark horse, in the shape of Earl Home, emerged. Home was, wrote Macmillan, “a man who represents the old governing class at its best” – which from someone other than Macmillan might have damaged him. But this was the Tory party and Home slipped into the leadership between the other candidates, finishing Butler off in the process.
    There is no reason for Blair to be at all complacent over his plan to hang on to power for some years to come. He above all should know that politics is too dirty and ruthless a game for that. In spite of all that has happened during the past two years, which has left his credibility in tatters, he may nurse the idea that he is invulnerable. But that was how Thatcher saw herself, in 1990 when she informed the assembled TV crews in Paris that she would “fight on” – just a few days before she was told, unmistakenly, that she had to go. If this kind of event is a crisis, it is not one for the working class. Our crises are in the fact that whoever takes over a government has no effect on how we get by under capitalism. Thatcher’s demise brought in John Major and then Tony Blair and we are now at a stage when a politician as soiled and as disreputable as Michael Howard can tell us, in a rare acquaintance with a truth, that all of them break their promises. As if we didn’t know.


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