The British political system should be a familiar enough beast to most of us. At the national level it has been replicated in some form or another in democracies all over the world. Where it deviates, particularly from a North American point of view, is at the local council level where national political parties are deeply involved. More than at any other time, a national government in Britain is provided a performance evaluation based on the results of various party standings in 176 local council elections.
Yesterday Tony Blair and his Labour Party were handed a failing grade.
The result is one of the worst on record for Labour in a local election but the party said it was not the "meltdown" some had predicted.The optimism is overwhelming.
Labour leaders in parliament were all over the results with the standard cliches. "It is a warning", "We need to renew ourselves", "We need to listen more closely to the people" and "We have unwavering faith in Tony Blair and his leadership".
I wonder if Blair can hear the bell ringing?
When the leader is being shown, "unwavering support" after a political slaughter, making appointments on next month's calendar is often no more than an attempt to improve one's penmanship.
Blair, of course, saw this coming and decided today to do a cabinet shuffle. For the second time in as many weeks and in a second country, this act has been referred to as "shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic".
Blair's government has endured a series of scandals, some of which are actually serious.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, responsible for policing, prisons and internal security was dumped from cabinet. He had been under considerable pressure to resign over the government's abysmal handling of deportees.
Clarke was more than a little embarrassed when it was revealed that candidates pending deportation, being held in detention, had been released. Attempts to discover their whereabouts were fruitless. They have just, well... vanished.
A much less serious but much more titillating scandal involved Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who admitted to having an affair. This is the kind of scandal Brits get into with gusto.
After it was disclosed that he was having it on with the subordinate and much younger, Tracy Temple, his private secretary, things rather exploded. When Ms. Temple claimed that sexual encounters occurred in Prescott's office (during working hours), his government apartment and his government car, Britons paid slightly less attention to other things. Reports that Pauline Prescott was devastated brought nods of understanding. When Temple's fiance expressed heatbreak and betrayal in the British press, well, guess where the 40 to 50 year old male vote got parked.
Blair's solution? Prescott remains Deputy PM, but since he apparently takes more crumpet than he should during staff coffee breaks, he loses his department and staff.
Blair hasn't really changed much. While he's moved people around, most of the same faces are still there and there are calls for a much more significant change - new management.
Although outwardly the British appear to be the most peaceful of peoples, the truth is much different. There is nothing the Brits like better than a good fight. Got a tinpot dictator? Give him a good whacking. Historically, the British have always shown a willingness to get in and mix it up, taking some pretty serious licks in the process.
What they don't like is stagnation. And Iraq has gone stagnant.
If Iraq had gone as planned, the troops would be home by now and, as unnecessary as it was, the invasion of Iraq would be relegated to Whitehall historical records and table top tactics at the local pub. Britons still have a vivid enough memory of a war to depose a dictator which, despite the occasional screw up and some losses, was done their way and was handled with speed and efficiency. The Falklands War in 1982, which had next to no long term cultural impact in Britain, is now being held out as an antithesis of the quagmire of Iraq. And it was Blair who took them to Iraq.
Scandal, a war that won't end and the simple hitching of his wagon to Bush's star has taken its toll on Tony Blair's government. Thursday's council elections were a referendum on his performance.
Expect that 10 Downing Street will be sending out change of address cards very soon.