It probably sounds familiar, but it is actually a description of the Labor government a few months after the landslide victory in the 1997 general election.
Documents released this week by the National Archives show the depth of the crisis that engulfed Tony Blair’s new administration following revelations that the new Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, had spent £ 650,000 to renovate his official residence, including £ 59,000 of hand-printed wallpaper and two hand-made beds which cost £ 23,000.
The parallels to today’s problems in Downing Street are striking, and the contrast in the response of Labor’s efficient and at times ruthless communications team very instructive.
At the time, Prime Minister Blair appeared to have taken personal control of the situation with official documents showing his handwritten comments saying “We have to stop this” and “We have to be firmer on these things”.
He was particularly keen to dispel accusations that his administration was “just the same as the Tories.”
Labor launched a fierce counterattack, revealing details of the previous Conservative government’s spending on overseas travel, hospitality and entertainment. This strategy was so effective that Labor not only survived the crisis, but continued for 12 years in power.
It was a long time ago, of course. Mention “The Derry Irvine Wallpaper” to political neophytes today and you will be greeted with a blank stare of incomprehension.
But the lessons for Boris Johnson’s side today are clear. Claims of sordid can be quickly forgotten, but only if you get the narrative under control to keep things from getting out of hand – and this is where Downing Street’s current response fell short.
The worst of the government’s problems has been entirely self-inflicted. The Owen Paterson case, in which ministers attempted to change the lobbying rules to get a partner out of trouble, was a catastrophic error in judgment that led directly to the disastrous defeat of the North Shropshire by-elections.
And the Conservatives’ decision to ruin its reputation as a low-tax party could cost it dearly in the next election. The 1.25 percent increase in national insurance contributions, which particularly hits the working poor, will be implemented in April precisely when large increases in fuel bills are expected.
As the Resolution Foundation think-tank pointed out, millions of families face a ‘cost of living disaster’ in 2022, which could worsen household plight by £ 1,200 a year.
This is what the government should be focusing on with laser-like focus. What worries would-be Conservative voters, especially in the “Red Wall” seats in the North, are bread and butter issues such as jobs, wages, prices and taxes. Instead, the government has spent far too much time obsessed with fringe issues in order to flatter the so-called progressives, who would not vote Conservative in a month of Sundays.
If the Conservatives turn into the party of high taxes, global warming and gender neutral toilets, then the red wall, and with it the next election, will be lost.
Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has made steady strides in detoxifying the Labor brand after the shame of the Corbyn years. He bolstered his leading team with capable artists, such as Yvette Cooper, MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, and he succeeded in marginalizing the far left which led the Labor Party to its worst electoral defeat in 85 years. in 2019.
Labor has once again become a party that honest people can support and as a result they are leading the polls, with a solid lead over the Conservatives. But it’s easy to overstate this. Boris Johnson is not in immediate danger. He still has a substantial majority and an election could take place until May 2024.
Former Huddersfield-born Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson is often quoted as saying: ‘A week is a long time in politics. Two years is even longer. Maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that there will be a lot more twists and turns before we have a chance to mark X in the box with a little pencil.
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