Shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic

Wow, politics has been fun the past couple of weeks. NHS minister booed by nurses, a Home Secretary letting foreign criminals go free to re-offend and John “Two Shags” Prescott loosing his briefs. One drubbing at the poles and a resuffle later and Patricia Hewitt keeps her job, Charles Clarke gets fired and John “Two Shags” Prescott looses his briefs.

There is an air of mystery surrounding all of these events that can easily be dispelled by a small amount, OK – a large amount, of cynicism. It’s all about “initiative“.

Let me explain, the NHS is having an initiative lumped upon it because the strategy of simply pouring more and more money on the problem hasn’t worked. It’s like trying to fix the drought in the South of England by getting Thames Water to increase the mains water pressure without first fixing the pipes that millions of gallons of water is escaping from every day. Only now, with the money pouring in at the top but not actually having any effect by the time it gets to the bottom, are the government wondering if there are some leaks or inefficiencies in the system and starting an initiative to try and sort it out. Of course there are leaks and inefficiencies in the system, the NHS is the single biggest employer in europe with 1.3 million staff and around £80bn was spent on it last year. That money and the management of it filters through the treasury then the department of health then the rest of White Hall, is kicked around the PFI boards and local health trusts and finally might make it down to front line care. It’s a huge behemoth of beurocracy managing an incredible amount of money and an incredible amount of staff. Obviously the thing to do is to manage that money according to where patients are at the bottom of the heap to create an artificial health market which will naturally become more efficient through competition. Obviously. Of course the situation could never be likened to guideing hunks of meat through a complicated system of ropes and pulleys into a piranha infested pool, and judging where they should be lowered by measuring how quickly the fish feed. Getting rid of as much of the ropes and pulleys as possible and splitting the pool into smaller pools certainly wouldn’t make this easier. No wonder nurses are so pissed off at Patricia Hewitt, they’re the ones charged with taming the piranhas.

Another ugly behemoth is the Home Office which suffers from a similar problem of being so huge that it is getting unmanageable. While Clarke was not solely responsible for the blunder, this has been happening since the Torys were in office, he was told by three different bodies that this was happening so he hired some more staff to throw at the problem and forgot about it until the story broke. The rate at which foreign nationals who should have been considered for deportation but were simply released after the end of their jail terms increased after he was told about the problem. It became clear that the immigration services and prison services were completely failing to communicate, despite being in the same department: The Home Office. Of course Clarke was quick to announce a new initiative to try to sort out the mess but didn’t feel he should resign as it was his cock-up and therefore he would know best how to deal with it.

Why didn’t Tony Blair sack him last week? He’d clearly been incompetent, his department was clearly in disarray – standard practice is for the minister to carry the can. The reason, of course, was that if he waited a few days he could make Clarke’s wing-nut-like head roll in a display of re-assertion of authority and re-gaining of political initiative in the wake of the local election results he knew were going to be horrific for him and there’s nothing like a good reshuffle to distract attention from poor results.

Lastly there is the mystery of the Minister With Out Briefs, John “Two Shags” Prescott. I actually don’t care about his affair nor consider the use of a ministerial car for ferrying her about anything more than a minor misdemeanor, however local government is the responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and, as we’ve already noticed, Labour are not only heamoraging councillors to the Torys but also the BNP – largely on the back of problems with social housing which is again a responsibility of the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister. These latter matters are worthwhile reasons for shuffling him on out but instead he gets to keep the money, the two houses, the two Jags and the title of Deputy Prime Minister but loses the department and responsibilities.

Why? John Prescott has always played a massively important role in the New Labour Project: he is the glue that holds it together. He is the mediator between numbers ten and eleven and the mediator between both of those offices and the Labour Party at large. Without him it all falls apart and Tony’s premiership is over. You can’t fire him as Deputy Prime Minister and not fire him as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party as well. If you provoke a deputy leader contest in the party then you can’t help but provoke a leadership contest as well.

The reshuffle has promoted three bright young Blair-ites to higher office and secured the bridge between numbers ten and eleven, since the waters between are bound to become more fractious. The point of it is to deflect criticism and dig Tony’s heels in – he means to stand down with just enough time for a leadership election to be over before the next election and not a moment before. Next week he’ll announce a shiny new initiative in the hope that the headlines will move on. He’s probably right.