WHEN an incumbent has been in post for ten or more years, he or she will
face a choice whether to stay on or move on. There is a familiar pattern of
mature ministry: a first year or two of energy and promise; a few years, it is
to be hoped, of increasing effectiveness; perhaps one or two years of drudgery.
On one level, there is no need to move elsewhere: every parish provides fresh
challenges to draw new depths of ministry from a priest. The key, often, is
whether support exists to share out the work and renew the vision, so that
fresh tasks are not merely burdens added on to an already over-full workload.
This dilemma faces fictional vicars as well as real ones. The Private Eye
satire of St Albion’s has long depicted Tony Blair as a beleaguered cleric,
unloved and undermined by his PCC, and in particular, by his Treasurer. Last
week’s Cabinet reshuffle brought the fiction to life, exposing the number of
politicians who are now prepared to criticise Mr Blair openly. Mr Blair’s
corrosive relationship with Gordon Brown is only one of the elements that led
to a poor performance in the local-government elections. Another was the Home
Secretary’s attempt to substitute cover-up and bluster for a reasoned policy on
immigration. Another was the disreputable behaviour of the Deputy Prime
Minister, who seems to have believed that his office required no more dignity
from him than that of a Big Brother contestant.
Watching the political soap opera is not a good way to judge how well the UK
is being governed — though there is an admission in such a widespread reshuffle
that, in Mr Blair’s eyes at least, various ministers have been performing
badly. A better indication is to examine how successful Labour’s policies have
been. The answer is "mixed", predictably enough. It is hard to think of an area
of policy where improvements have not been made; nor one where the Government
is not in danger of losing its way.
In her recent book The Moral State We’re In (HarperCollins
Perennial, updated 2006), Rabbi Julia Neuberger tests the Government’s
performance by its ability to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people
in the UK: those who are elderly, mentally ill, in prison, or asylum-seekers.
She warns that, despite investment in each area, the state’s performance falls
woefully short of the level of protection these groups need. Those involved in
social care routinely lack training, support, and prestige. These factors,
coupled with the fear of litigation, lead to what are largely sins of omission:
many people suffer systemic (one of Mr Clarke’s favourite words) and grotesque
Too much of last week’s reshuffle seemed to be about personalities and
private allegiances. The local-election results suggest that people are now
judging the Government by its ability to implement effective policies. Mr Blair
ought to see that the writing on the wall demands more radical changes from him
than he has so far been prepared to contemplate.