Leaving aside mounting evidence of simultaneous inflation and
stagnation in the economy, the Government has two overriding problems as
it nears the end of its first Parliamentary year. Not surprisingly, they
are presentation and personalities since these - and not distinctive
policies - are what New Labour is about. Let’s get personalities out of
the way first.
Recently I lunched with a top civil servant, who told me: ’You and I
have known too often how prime ministers and their chancellors have
started out as friends and allies and ended up at daggers drawn.
Thatcher and Howe. Thatcher and Lawson. Major and Lamont. But this is
the first time we have seen them start distrustful and resentful of each
other as Blair and Brown did. God only knows how it will end.’
Far too much PR time in all governments is spent coping with ministerial
personality clashes and quirks. But in this one the spin doctors are
putting in overtime actually exploiting those differences, in
anticipation of the reshuffle, expected this month. They are being
remorselessly played out in speculation over how Mr Blair will curb the
ambitions of Gordon Brown in Cabinet changes, notably featuring Peter
Mandelson and Chief Whip Nick Brown. The entire recasting of the
Government will be judged, it seems, by whether the Prime Minister can
show indisputably who is boss.
This is as politically unhealthy as reports, plastered all over the
Observer last Sunday, of Labour-loving lobbyists allegedly trading
ministerial access and inside information for cash. Only 14 months ago,
this would have been called sleaze. The Government is looking rather
tawdry and Mr Blair should this day box the ears of both his stupid
apparatchiks and the judgmentally-challenged lobbyists among his hangers
on. He should have learned at least something from his abysmal handling
of pounds 1 million Labour benefactor Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1
motor racing tobacco sponsorship.
He should also tell his press secretary, Alastair Campbell to calm
I don’t blame Mr Campbell for trying to inject discipline into the
Government’s broadcast presentation. Governments are entitled to decide
whether they have something to say and whether the format of the
programme, including the interviewer and other guests, suit its purpose.
Too many broadcasters seek only heat, not light.
But it is counter-productive to create an issue over whether you are
’dumbing down’ ministerial appearances by avoiding hard-ball
interviewers in favour of soft sofa situations. What are ministers
afraid of? Their own policies? And it is idiotic then to spend a week
provoking a public row by writing to the Times and drawing the withering
fire of the likes of Jeremy Paxman, Nick Clarke and John Humphrys. The
silly season has arrived early. Stupidity has set in.