OPINION: Blair's worst week sets agenda for conference - The news headlines scream about Blair's worst week ever. How did a previously sure-footed government get itself into such a mess? And how will it get out?

The Labour party's honeymoon with the electorate lasted longer than most expected. Rigorous news management, good economic figures and a plainly inept opposition meant that three years in, the Government still had a 20 per cent lead over the Tories in the polls.

The Labour party's honeymoon with the electorate lasted longer than most expected. Rigorous news management, good economic figures and a plainly inept opposition meant that three years in, the Government still had a 20 per cent lead over the Tories in the polls.

Then the troubles mounted. Early wobbles in the summer grew more serious as the Blair government's grip on the popular mind began to slip. Even in that context, recent polls - showing William Hague's unknown or disliked shadow cabinet had a realistic chance of regaining power at the next election - require some explanation. To turn a 20 per cent lead into a five per cent chase in a matter of days is without precedent.

The succession of PR disasters which befell the Government are well documented. First the Millennium Dome sacked its chairman, lost its proposed buyer and announced it would gladly close early were the financial implications not more dire than those involved in remaining open. Then a ramshackle alliance of haul-iers, cab-drivers and farmers brought the country to a standstill by blockading oil refineries.

As if that were not enough - and the polls' timing suggest it would have been - both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are accused of lying over a pounds 1 million corporate donation to the party three years back which immediately preceded a major policy change beneficial to the donor.

'The communications aspects of policy had been neglected for too long,' says Mark Adams, a former private secretary to both Blair and his predecessor, John Major. 'They were distracted by the complexities of government. Despite the fact the Government has brought in countless special advisers, the basic business of government is still done by civil servants who are less aware of presentational issues than others might be,' says Adams, now public affairs MD at The Communications Group.

At a time of crisis - and one Westminster source likened the atmosphere in Downing Street last week to the sense of doom ahead of Black Wednesday - the Government must hold its nerve.

Charles Lewington, who was communications director for the Tories between 1995 and 1997, says the Government must not be bounced into rash decisions on the basis of one set of polls. Lewington, who was in charge of Tory PR in the lead up to its worst-ever election defeat, says that last week's poll swing was so severe, it must be treated with scepticism.

'It's puzzling that a massive lead from May to July can collapse so quickly. It may reflect the current public mood without indicating a seismic shift in opinion. It does not mean the Tories would win an election called for this autumn,' says Lewington.

Labour now has a reputation for being out-of-touch and not listening to the people, an odd charge to make of a party previously accused of being obsessed with opinion polls and focus groups. It cannot be simultaneously true that they listen to the people every day and that they never listen to them at all.

Olly Grender, an LLM director, reconciles this dichotomy by saying that in focus group research, the party hears only what it wants to hear. And Grender advises not to worry too much for Labour's rating. 'The Women's Institute thing was turned around quickly enough.

You can't overstate the volatility of both the people and the media,' she says.

A more damaging charge in the long-term may concern the party's London-centricity. Leighton Andrews, MD of Westminster Strategy, says the Government's focus on topics like the Dome at the expense of issues like the fuel crisis (in its early days) betrayed a Labour reluctance to look at any issues beyond the M25. 'The fuel thing crept up because the political and media classes in London were not affected by it for a couple of days while in the provinces people drive more so noticed it sooner,' says Andrews.

Andrews predicts some shift in next month's pre-budget report by the Chancellor - a cut in fuel duty - but thinks that in strategic communications terms, more can be done by the Government.

'They need to find a way to break up the fuel coalition. The coalition of interests - bringing farmers and hauliers together - is classically good PR, but they need to focus on the interests of the different groups to prevent such a coalition breaking out again,' he adds.

The fightback also needs to be more aggressive. Blair's team have - with the exception of the last two weeks - always maintained control of the news agenda. It is not bad policy per se that has cost them so dear - it would be hard to imagine a Tory or Lib Dem government making different decisions at the key moments - but the loss of control of the agenda.

This process has started, with Gordon Brown touring the news studios to clear up the accusations of lying about the Bernie Ecclestone donation and focusing attention on pensions - an issue where the party feels confident of beating the Tories.

The Government has to continue this process of grabbing the agenda for itself, says our Westminster source. 'We have to use the conference to regain the agenda to put all the trouble behind us,' he says



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