The best comment of many in the Sunday papers about the black farce known as the Labour Party is by Robert Harris in The Sunday Times:
[Gordon Brown] has shown the most appalling political ineptitude and has reduced the Labour government to a farcical grotesquerie without precedent in living memory. So much so that, as the reality sinks in, I would put Brown’s chances of succeeding Blair at not much more than 50-50 and his hopes of winning the next general election at substantially less than that.
Clever men and women in the Labour party must surely start to see that it is not only Blair, but Brown as well, who has outstayed his welcome and that the best means of “renewal” (to borrow the Brownites’ favourite word) might be to dispense with the services of both and install some new faces at the top.
As it is, Brown faces a daunting prospect. The British electorate hate being taken for granted. Having been told little more than a year ago that they were electing a prime minister who would serve a “full term”, they may with some justice see last week’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans as an insult to democracy.
Do read the whole thing, which I differ from only in that it understates the problem. Brown has behaved appallingly in the last week, but then he has behaved appallingly throughout the life of this government, and beyond. Blair ought to have dismissed Brown's pretensions to leadership twelve years ago at their notorious dinner at Granita. Brown would not have defeated Blair in a straight leadership fight to succeed John Smith; Blair ought to have challenged him to stand then. Having appointed Brown Chancellor after New Labour's first election victory, Blair should have moved him to the Foreign Office immediately after the second, with the clear implication that it was a demotion (replacing the similarly demoted Robin Cook).
But Blair has lacked the instinct for brutality, when it was often necessary. Partly owing to historical necessity - after four successive elections defeats, Labour did not naturally attract talented people as parliamentary candidates - the standard of ministerial appointment in this government has often been shockingly low. Think (if these names mean anything to you) of Gavin Strang or David Clark, who made it into Blair's first Cabinet owing to the peculiarities of Labour's internal rulebook. But consider also the destructive sub-mediocrities throughout the ministerial ranks who were manifestly incompetent to hold such posts before their appointments and fulfilled expectations: Chris Smith, Mo Mowlam, Angela Eagle, Glenda Jackson, Estelle Morris, Ian McCartney and so very many others. Consider - consider above all - the Deputy Prime Minister. I hope that Brown faces a serious challenger (preferably John Reid) in a contested leadership election, that he loses, and that Blair's successor purges Labour's front ranks in a way the PM has never done. The incumbent Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and Communities Secretary should be the first to go.
On less dispiriting matters, note also that Robert Harris's fifth novel, Imperium, was published last week. Like his last novel, Pompeii, it's a dramatisation of Ancient Rome, but is more explicitly political. It's based on the life of Cicero, and it describes political haggling and manoeuvring for power in a way highly germane to this week's events. I have just finished it, and enjoyed it hugely. If you don't know Harris's novels, then start with the first, Fatherland. I approached this with great suspicion when it was published in 1992. Unlike other dystopias about a victorious Nazi Germany (most famously The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick), the book explicitly deals with the Holocaust as much as the casual brutality of Nazi society, and I believed this would be extraordinarily difficult for a literary thriller to accomplish without bathos. In fact it works superbly.
I was reminded of this because Stephen Pollard comments on the same article by Harris today. Stephen praises Harris's political journalism, but adds:
I've read two of [Harris's] books and thought at the end of both 'what was the point of that?'. Hours of my life wasted, never to be regained.
I will no doubt be shouted down for saying this but with a few exceptions - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Robertson Davies, for instance - I usually find fiction a complete waste of time. I don't see the point of most of it. Not when real life is so much more complex than any novel can ever be.
I know Stephen well enough, and have considered with incredulity his political and cultural judgements often enough, to believe that this is probably not his real view. He surely can't be serious this time.