Opinion: Labour starts the year on wrong foot

Is Tony Blair losing his touch? This is the new year's big political question.

Surely the answer to that must be 'yes', given his unfathomable decision to say nothing publicly, for more than a week, in the wake of one of the greatest natural disasters in human history. Instead he chose to enjoy an uninterrupted exotic holiday in Egypt with his family.

Another decision, bordering on arrogance, and which may have even more negative political impact, was one taken as most of us were out doing last-minute Christmas shopping. Alan Milburn, Labour's so-called election strategist, told a private briefing of Westminster lobby hacks that, for the first time in living memory, there would be no morning press conferences for the duration of the next general election campaign.

Milburn said Labour wanted to take its campaign 'out to the people and away from the metropolitan elite in London'. This is, of course, total rubbish. The real reason for this change is that Blair knows that Milburn simply isn't up to the task of chairing daily press conferences without screwing up at least once. Labour also (wrongly) believes that it is easier to control the agenda away from the daily grilling from the press.

In my view, the daily press conference remains the best way of staying on the front foot. In 1997 there was not one day that we were blown off course. Friendly hacks could be relied on to ask planted questions and once the chairman, Gordon Brown, had called on the broadcasters to ask their patsy questions, there was little time left for the awkward squad.

Hostile hacks, such as Peter Hitchens, weren't called once. The only embarrassment for us was when BBC TV caught me secretly signalling to Brown to end the press conference. The BBC had used a miniature camera to catch me out, so naturally we banned it from using them at future events.

The press want to screw up the election strategists' agenda, but, crucially, the broadcasters are forced to cover whatever the political parties serve up. This is why the Liberal Democrats have decided not to follow Labour and their 'battle bus' will continue to take Charles Kennedy around the country.

On Sunday I asked Michael Howard, who launched his election campaign this week, which approach he would take. Howard said the Tories 'hadn't yet taken a decision'. If I were him I'd make an issue out of Labour's reluctance to face the press and rustle up a posse of fancy-dress chickens to follow the PM around the country.

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