The Channel 4 fantasy programme The Trial of Tony Blair had the next general election culminate in a photo finish between a tongue-tied, terminally indecisive Gordon Brown and a vacuously trendy David Cameron.
Reality looks like it could turn out worse. According to a recent Guardian/ICM poll, the Tories are on 42 percent, Labour on 29 percent, and the Liberal Democrats on 17 percent.
This was the worst figure for Labour since the disastrous 1983 election. It was the best for the Tories since July 1992, just before their fortunes crashed along with the pound when it was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992.
What can have brought about this reversal in the Tories’ position? Fundamentally, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have only themselves to blame.
As everyone but Blair realises, thanks to his part in procuring the Iraq war, he is stamped with the mark of Cain and will never be forgiven.
Had the parliamentary Labour Party been as ruthless as their Tory counterparts, they would have ditched him the way the latter disposed of Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.
But Labour backbenchers are a gutless bunch, as they showed again last week when John Reid talked them into voting through the privatisation of the probation service.
Brown has set himself up as master of New Labour’s domestic policy. But this is likely to prove as bitter a legacy as Blair’s imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having kept to tight controls on public spending inherited from the Tories in New Labour’s first term, Brown was much more generous during their second, in 2001-5. The figures show a substantial increase in spending on the NHS.
But this is turning to ashes in Brown’s mouth. More money has not led to an improved NHS, largely because of the government’s frenzied efforts to run healthcare on a market basis.
Now his nemesis has arrived. Higher public spending has pushed up government borrowing, making the City anxious. So Brown has to show he can be trusted to clamp down on spending.
Hence the 1.9 percent limit on public sector pay he imposed last week and the NHS crisis – as hospitals are forced to close wards and sack staff to make their budgets balance according to crazy treasury accounting rules.
The results can be seen in a dreadful story in the Independent on Sunday. Deaths among pregnant women in Britain have risen to Eastern European levels, apparently thanks to a shortage of midwives as they are being sacked for financial reasons.
No wonder that opinion polls show that a large majority of the public believe the NHS has got worse under New Labour. The Tories are exploiting this to the hilt.
Cameron’s soft soap and green image have allowed them to position themselves quite effectively – though thoroughly hypocritically – in opposition to healthcare cuts.
At the same time, the tabloids are working hard to reconstruct the popular base of Thatcherism around issues such as defending the family and opposing road charges and Brown’s “stealth taxes”.
The Tory revival has put Brown on the defensive. Until recently the Blair camp seemed to have become resigned to his succeeding their master as prime minister.
But last week there were stories that David Miliband was thinking of challenging Brown as the Blairite candidate in the leadership election. Two old foes, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, have surfaced to demand a “debate” that is clearly intended to portray Brown as an Old Labour loser.
I doubt if any of this will stop Brown succeeding. Apart from anything else, the trade union leaders seem masochistically resigned to backing him.
But the skirmishing will push Brown ever more slavishly to continue Blair’s agenda of public sector “reform”. He is endorsing the Freud report that demands more attacks on single parents.
It’s fortunate then, as the Guardian reported, that the ICM poll “shows voters remain interested in smaller parties”.