Long haul to the end of the summer

August is meant to be a "silly" season, with little for the press to hope for other than that the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, making his annual appearance to run the country, might inadvertently double-park one of his Jaguars outside a betting shop. A period without evident government might even, in any other year, have provided a breathing space in which a battered administration could begin to restore its credibility. This year is different. Leading government players in the intelligence drama of the past few weeks left Westminster for their various holiday villas as the funeral of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly sombrely dominated television screens and newspaper front pages, a sad event made sadder by a new spinning gaffe and a new round of political opportunism.

The Prime Minister's departure lounge request was for a period of restraint, which he probably hoped would last at least until the first witnesses were called before Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly. His call went unheeded and, instead, Mr Prescott suffered the embarrassment of having to confirm, on the eve of Dr Kelly's funeral, that one of the PM's spokesmen had briefed journalists that Dr Kelly was a "Walter Mitty" fantasist. It beggars belief that, with press and government already engaged in a bare-knuckle fight over issues of secret briefings, a top aide should be revealed whispering self-serving smears. Mr Blair was surely right that if ever there was a time for quiet reflection rather than spin, this was it.

With or without the called-for restraint, it was always going to be the case that when the Hutton inquiry summoned its first witnesses on 11 August, the careers of the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, and the Prime Minister's communications director, Alastair Campbell, would be on the line. But so, too, is Mr Blair's future. Labour's popularity has slumped to a 16-year low, according to some polls, and the start of the inquiry heralds the advent of a chillier political environment than Labour has so far had to endure.

Mr Blair's task of regaining public trust looks insuperable. An ever-widening range of issues is tainted by his government's lack of credibility. It is not just the intelligence debacle and his increasingly discredited transatlantic foreign affairs strategy (examined by John Kampfner on page 7). The Prime Minister also faces grave public misgivings over his domestic policy. In the two years leading up to the next election, voters will determine whether the billions pumped into schools and hospitals have yielded results. Each proclaimed achievement will be subject to new levels of scrutiny.

But even if Mr Blair were able to restore the electorate's faith in Labour's achievements, there is a greater problem. He looks more and more like a leader with nothing new to offer. His front bench looks old and tired. He has been forced to fall back on the tried and trusted of the Kinnock era, the likes of John Reid and Charles Clarke. Few at the top table have the ability to inspire voters. He has lost loyal friends such as Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers. Gone are more charismatic colleagues such as Clare Short and Mo Mowlam - their valuable support squandered and the manner of their leaving surrounded by damaging quarrels and the off-the-record briefings that have come to characterise this administration. Gone, too, is the tetchy brilliance of Robin Cook and those willing to support Mr Blair for longer-term objectives and wider principles that are now so evidently unimportant to his current lacklustre team.

The policies that Mr Blair's dull colleagues now promote contain much stick and little carrot. The government has been humiliated in the courts over its treatment of asylum-seekers, leaving it with no ammunition to fire at an opposition whose only new policy in months is to promote the blatantly racist idea that migrants bring disease to Britain. In the law and order agenda, in tuition fees and in the technocratic reforms proposed for schools and hospitals, there is nothing to generate enthusiasm among remaining believers, let alone start to win back those disillusioned by the war with Iraq.

Nor is Gordon Brown well placed to benefit from this malaise. He, too, must use the summer to reflect. Economic data before the break gave little cause for optimism. Growth figures were down, borrowing was up. Both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister - for reasons of political cowardice - want to soft-pedal on tax. But they are committed to years of high spending on public services. Something has to give.

If Mr Brown hopes to emerge with credibility from his party's dark hour, he must risk starting an uncomfortable political debate about what the Labour Party is really for.

On and off the rails

We were touched to hear Compassion in World Farming call on farmers to halt transportation of animals as temperatures in Britain soared. Heat and crowding can be stressful for animals, it thought. Unfortunately, no comparable organisation sought compassion for commuters, so we suffer in silence as the wrong kind of sunshine slows crowded trains to walking pace in case the heat has warped the rails.

But hold on a minute. At the end of the 19th century, the British managed to run the "iron snake" through sweltering tropics, from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, on rails that remain unbuckled to this day. And rumour has it that even the hottest parts of India have railway tracks dating back to the era of pith helmets. Let Egypt have the Rosetta Stone; give Nigeria her Benin bronzes; send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. But please, can we have our rails back?

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