If the prime minister hoped to deflect attention from the local election results by a well-timed reshuffle he has certainly succeeded. Much was thought to hang on the election results and they were as bad as Labour expected. Despite the panicky reshuffle, however, it isn't clear how much we can read into them. Local elections in the last days of John Major's government did, it's true, accurately predict the outcome of the 1997 general election, but that is very unusual. In any case, comparisons between Major's last days and the position of the present government don't really hold up. Labour's standing in the polls, though not high, is not much lower than its actual vote in the general election. And although Labour did badly in the 2004 local elections and in the last European elections, it nonetheless won the general election. With such low turnouts what matters is who bothers to vote; and it is the discontented who are most likely to do so. Nor, despite what some have said, is there the sense of terminal decay (though the reshuffle certainly has a whiff of it) that marked Major's government. However unfair to John Major it might be, as an electoral burden Iraq isn't Black Wednesday.
LRB 25 May 2006 | PDF Download