LONDON — Jay Leno and David Letterman would have a couple of weeks’ worth of merriment at the expense of British politicians if their shows were on the air here. The most recent woes of the politicos began with the news that Lord Jeffrey Archer, one-time promising Conservative office holder and a popular novelist, frequently left his minimum security prison for luncheons in a nearby town; then most recently, attended a champagne soiree while on home leave (he was in the slammer for falsely suing for libel). Then came the bombshell that demure and proper former Prime Minister John Major had carried on a four-year affair with a highly ambitious Tory woman politician while he was a whip in Margaret Thatcher’s government. The woman, one Edwina Currie, dropped the bomb in her well-paid memoirs, just released.
Poor Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the Conservative Party, just completing his first year. Like our Democrats, he’s had a terrible time getting traction on any issue. Tony Blair has him blocked on the right, with his get-Saddam stance, and he hasn’t been able to get anyone to believe he can do a better job than Labour on health care and education, despite the fact the Labour government is getting low marks in these areas. On the eve of the Conservatives’ annual conference, a poll of regional party leaders showed less than a majority thought IDS, as he’s called, had accomplished much of anything in his first year.
John Major’s political reputation — as it was — went pffft overnight. The scandal reminded one and all that it was in the latter years of his government that ministers, deputy ministers and other high officials were revealed to have succumbed to the Clinton Syndrome — roving eyes and loose zippers. Most dalliances were with women, some with men, one was solo by an apparent suicide found on the floor of his flat clad only in ladies’ pantyhose. The British have long taken eccentricity in stride, but this abundance of outré behavior on the part of so many leaders in a party which claims to be the soul of rectitude, was too much. Tony Blair coopted the issues, the Tories were out, and the rest has been history.
Not quite. On the eve of Labour’s annual conference, the Daily Telegraph commissioned a new poll to find out how Blair & Co. were doing with the electorate. Not so well. On the question of “Britain’s public services — things such as the National Health Service, education and public transport– have: Gotten better (17%), Gotten worse (51%), Stayed the same (30%).” Asked if the government was delivering or not delivering key issues, there was more bad news for Labour: “Improving the health service (27+, 67-), improving the quality of education (27+, 67-), improving public transportation (9+, 85-).” These are issues New Labour used to come into power and keep it.
Tony Blair, personally, is not tarnished by this voter dissatisfaction. He comes out with very high marks as to competency, decisiveness, “caring,” effectiveness and likability. While his close association with George Bush on the matter of Iraq is not widely popular, he has enough political capital in the bank to spend some of it in the area of statesman.
Labour draws its support from urban dwellers, trade unions and intellectuals. Country people do not count for much in its plans. The frustration of country folk boiled over two weekends ago with a march on London by — according to authorities — an estimated 400,000 persons. We met several of them during this visit and they are people not given to protests in the streets. Not, that is, until this time. They complained that the BBC gave their march almost no coverage, but amply covered a left-wing anti-war protest of much smaller size the following weekend. This should come as no surprise, given the long-time leftward tilt of the BBC.
The fight over Labour’s proposed ban on fox hunting is the ostensible issue with the country folk, but they see it in larger terms, as a fight for farming and country values. Even Prince Charles weighed in with some private letters to Labour ministers expressing concern for country ways. These letters were promptly leaked to the press. The protesters and the prince have a point, but it is unlikely they will get any relief from Westminster.