A time to stay, a time to move

02 November 2006

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 neglect.

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.

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