During the last Conservative leadership election, I was discussing the contenders' prospects with a prominent Tory. It was, my interlocutor said, the first election of any kind that he could recall where it was completely impossible to adduce an argument for one of the principal contenders. I could see what he meant. Even in an election where one side of the argument is obviously incredible and discredited - say, Labour in 1983 or the Tories in 1997 - you can usually at least construct a theoretical argument for voting that way. (For my own purposes I did construct an argument for voting Labour in 1983, and then acted on it - but my case presupposed that Labour had no chance of victory.) Yet in the Tory leadership election there was no obvious, or even ingenious, rational case for supporting David Davis.
I feel much the same way about Labour's Deputy Leader. Harriet Harman's election gives an overriding message to the electorate: Labour is short on talent, and does not penalise its absence. Many useless ministers have come and gone since New Labour took office. Tony Blair's first Cabinet - drawn, under the party's arcane rules, from the previous Shadow Cabinet - was stuffed with them. They included David Clark, Chris Smith, Gavin Strang, Margaret Beckett, Mo Mowlam and Ron Davies. But none was more obviously over-promoted than Harriet Harman. As Social Security Secretary, she began - quite correctly - by emphasising the role of social security in creating incentives to work and save. She proved unable to propose or even effectively defend welfare reforms. Labour failed at the first attempt, with the abolition of lone-parent premia for new claimants. The measure had scant budgetary significance, but symbolism. Ms Harman's incoherent attempt to defend the measure on the Today programme was damaging for her and for the Government. Her inability to stamp authority on her department was symbolised in one of the most intense feuds in politics, between her and Frank Field - ending in his resignation and her sacking.
But the Labour Party prefers its leaders docile (witness Denis Healey's successive failures to secure the top job), and this deputy knows how to ingratiate. Witness this BBC profile (which begins with euphemism and gets wrong the year of Ms Harman's election to Westminster: it was in the 1982 Peckham by-election, not the 1983 general election):
Harriet Harman's victory in the race to be Labour's deputy leader confirms her status as one of the great survivors of modern politics. She has steadily rebuilt her standing in the party after being sacked from Tony Blair's first Cabinet in 1998. She returned to government in 2001 as the first female solicitor general....
Often portrayed as an ardent Brownite, she made much of the fact that she has worked with Mr Brown in the past in her deputy leadership campaign, serving as his deputy when Labour were in opposition. But as the wife of senior Transport and General Workers' Union official - and Labour Party treasurer - Jack Dromey, she has also has strong Old Labour credentials. She also stood out from the other ministers in the six-way deputy contest by saying she regretted voting for the Iraq war and said the party needed to apologise for it.
New Labour was a noble venture in spite of its tortuous attempts to find ways of restating the obvious. Tony Blair has been an outstanding prime minister. But the message from Labour's activists is that the admirers of Blair will form a freemasonry rather than a movement. Like the Church of England abandoning the Cranmer Prayer Book, one of the country's most obtuse institutions has no idea wherein lies its strength.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Tories demonstrate that they are far from being the "heirs to Blair". Michael Portillo writes perceptively:
Cameron knows that reassuring the party and widening its electoral support are opposites.... If Cameron really has surrendered, the party is doomed. I had concluded, when I left politics, that the Tories were ungovernable and had a death wish. But Cameron is clever and charismatic; I believed he could succeed where I had failed, especially since even the Conservatives might learn something after three landslide defeats.
Now I am not so sure. Cameron has wobbled. Unless he regains control of his party at once, the project will be lost. It would be much better for him to press on even at the risk of being deposed than to settle into the leadership agony of Hague and Howard.
I have always doubted that the Conservatives could win the next election. Now the question in my mind is different: can the Tories ever win again?
A Conservative Party that takes the path of least resistance to its activists will not win. (This, by the way, is one reason for my horror at the party's enthusiasm for the Tory "blogosphere". The last thing the party's leadership should be doing is taking advice from Tory activists.) The Liberal Democrats are no threat either, with an abysmal leadership and an antediluvian programme. There is, in short, little incentive for Gordon Brown to shake Labour up and tell it hard political truths. That's a shame, because it means the dissipation of Tony Blair's political legacy.