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18 December 2006

The known unknowns with much to prove

We imagined that the system was incorruptible. But by the end of 2006 the myth of the British honest

By Martin Bright

The political landscape of Britain changed beyond recognition in 2006. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats found new leaders and Tony Blair was forced to say he would be leaving office in the year ahead. The Tories became the defenders of the poor and the opponents of cuts in the NHS, while Labour further established its credentials as the party of law and order and creeping privatisation. The behaviour of the government at home and abroad ensured that the ground constantly shifted under what we knew, thought we knew, or perhaps never knew at all.

We imagined that the system was incorruptible. Not for us the funding scandals that undermined the political classes in Italy, France and Germany. By the end of the year, the myth of the British honesty gene had been exploded by the “loans for peerages” inquiry. The three main parties were implicated in the sordid affair, in which, at best, their fundraisers used loans to get around new legislation on political donations.

When Angus MacNeil, a Scottish Nationalist MP, first reported the matter to the police in March, his actions were written off as a stunt. Government spinners scoffed at the SNP, sneered at the police and snapped at the media. Now, several of Blair’s inner circle – including his chief fundraiser, Lord Levy, and chief of staff, Jonathan Powell – face a nervous holiday season awaiting the arrival of the report to the Crown Prosecution Service by the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner John Yates.

In a year dominated by scandal and the further discrediting of UK foreign policy, it has been all too easy to forget domestic policy. In February, the Education and Inspections Bill, which allows for the setting up of independent trust schools within the state sector, sparked a back-bench rebellion that nearly scuppered the legislation.

The year ahead will see Blair and John Reid pursuing antisocial behaviour wherever they find it and Patricia Hewitt scrambling to balance the books in the NHS, something on which her cabinet survival depends. Identity cards will continue to dog ministers as opposition parties join forces against the legislation. It is likely that the first stories about a Lib Dem-Conservative electoral pact will emerge in 2007.

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Traditional Tory

After a year as Conservative leader, David Cameron remains something of a known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. Is he, as some in Labour would have it, just a traditional Tory in disguise? The party’s policy reviews thus far on tax and social justice have trodden very safe ground, and I am told that radical proposals from David Willetts on education were toned down so as not to scare the horses. But Cameron is ruffling feathers within the party. Letters from disgruntled activists are pouring in to the Victoria Street headquarters, which suggests that his reform of the party is beginning to bite. His big test in the new year will be to keep the letter-writers on board as he continues his cuddly revolution.

Cameron’s team remains confident, but considering the difficulties the government has encountered during the year, the Tory high command should be worried that the party is not romping ahead in the polls.

In April, the government suffered a triple whammy of misfortune: John Prescott, Labour’s touchstone with the traditional working-class voter, was shown to be a high-living philanderer; Hewitt was denounced by nurses over health-service cuts; and Charles Clarke lost track of more than 1,000 foreign criminals.This combination could have undermined confidence in the government terminally, but the electorate is still to be won over by the alternative.

One certainty at the start of 2006 was that Gordon Brown would not be allowed to become Labour leader unopposed. One by one his potential rivals have been cut down, usually by their own actions rather than Brown’s “clunking fist”. It is not so long ago that David Blunkett was being talked up as a future prime minister. But his memoirs betrayed a simple-minded sentimentalism that make it surprising he was ever seriously considered for a junior ministerial post, let alone the top job.

Clarke began the year as a genuine heavyweight alternative, but was sucked into the black hole that is the Home Office. The foreign prisoner crisis was always likely to end his cabinet career, but when this magazine revealed that one of the lost foreign offenders ended up as a suspect in the failed London bomb attacks of 21 July 2005, it was all over. For a moment, Alan Johnson looked like a contender, and there is no doubt that Downing Street was desperate for someone (anyone) to stand.

But when the last serious potential Blairite challenger, David Miliband, ruled himself out, even the staunchest Blairite “ultra” had to bow to the inevitable. John McDonnell’s challenge from the left remains a distracting sideshow, but attention will turn in the New Year to the deputy leadership battle, as long as the party doesn’t cancel it due to a lack of funds.

Nothing was quite as it seemed with the attempted September “coup” against Blair. When MPs returned from their summer break, the PM made a clumsy attempt to outline his exit strategy from office in an interview with the Times. His comments suggested, however, that he intended to hang on until the last possible moment. The spontaneous revolt that followed led a band of former loyalists to send Downing Street a letter demanding that Blair stand down for the sake of the party.

Given the reputation of Brown and his circle for conspiracies, many assumed the Chancellor had organised the insurrection. The facts suggested otherwise: with one exception, all those who signed the letter were loyal Blairites.

Next to nothing

National security and radical Islam again dominated the discourse, but five years into the “war on terror”, the messages coming out of Whitehall are still confused and contradictory.

In January, the NS published a leaked Foreign Office memo outlining what the government knew about CIA torture flights passing through British airspace. The papers suggested they knew next to nothing. The issue of “extraordinary rendition” – where terror suspects are taken to countries where they can be questioned using techniques illegal in the United States – was a major embarrassment for Blair. Although it remained true at this point that ministers were “unaware” of the use of UK airspace for this purpose, this was only because they hadn’t chosen to look very closely. The memo suggested the government should “try to move the debate on”. But the debate continues thanks to investigations by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, and the dogged work of the investigative reporter Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane, who first reported the existence of rendition flights in this magazine two years ago.

Further leaks published by the NS showed that the Foreign Office had developed a policy of dialogue with Islamist radicals across the Middle East. This was described as “engagement for engagement’s sake” by one concerned diplomat, and appeared to contradict Blair’s statements that extreme ideology was fuelling terrorism. As links with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were being encouraged by the Foreign Office in the Middle East, some ministers were beginning to worry about some of the “engagement for engagement’s sake” at home. Statements from Tony Blair and the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, arguing that Muslim groups must show a commitment to shared British values before receiving state funding, mark a real shift in government policy.

But a fault line has now opened up between the Foreign Office and the rest of Whitehall. The prime mover of the engagement policy, John Sawers, has just been appointed as UK ambassador to the UN, but it is unlikely that Margaret Beckett will have the wherewithal to address the issue. Paradoxically, she may have to look to the Tories’ policy group on security, which reports in the new year, for some progressive ideas in this area.

In the year ahead, one certainty is that we will have a new prime minister. A near certainty is that this will be Gordon Brown. What remains unclear is whether the most successful Labour leader in history will end his career in the most humiliating way possible: under arrest, awaiting trial for selling honours.

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