Geri Halliwell may appeal to six-year-old girls, but that doesn't make her the right person to relaunch the Women's Unit

The relaunch of the Women's Unit got hijacked by Geri Halliwell. Despite some good initiatives on income, employment and domestic violence, the headline topic was Ginger Spice. In fairness, Halliwell cannot be held responsible. She was not present at the event, having departed to stitch rice sacks, sort out the Balkans, or whatever retired Spice Girls do when they join the UN.

Nor does anyone seem to have asked her whether she was happy to be commandeered as the new government role model for teenage girls, a notion that scandalised the high feminists of the Sun. "Has the world gone mad?" the paper demanded. Teen icons, it decreed, should be barristers or doctors or teachers. Or even, presumably, someone like Baroness Jay, whose sensible ideas had regrettably been eclipsed by a one-time Turkish game-show hostess beloved only of socially repressed six-year-old girls and the Prince of Wales.

Halliwell's conscription therefore remains a mystery. One explanation is that someone at the Women's Unit considers teenage girls - like chimpanzees or bottlenose dolphins - to be divisible into tribal coalitions, each eager to fall in behind Halliwell or other showbusiness pack leaders nominated by the unit.

New tribalism is not confined to youth policy. The Sun, counter-balancing its feminist crusade with some topical gay-bashing, advanced the idea that Britain is being run by a velvet mafia of homosexual "politicians, lawyers, Palace courtiers and TV bigwigs". Evidence of such a cabal is naturally non-existent. Among gays named by the Sun, Nick Brown is not close to Chris Smith. Neither likes Peter Mandelson, whose views on the career-enhancing influence of Matthew Parris are probably on a par with those of Ron Davies on ageing Rastafarians in striped jackets.

The Sun knows this; choosing its text in the knowledge that it would be tut-tutted over and publicised by commentators outraged, as if to order, by the paper's temerity not only in demeaning gays, but also in insinuating the concept of hate implicit in tribalism. Still, however bogus its line on high-placed mafias, the Sun did touch on a half-truth.

Whatever their sexuality, Palace courtiers have emerged - in the lead-up to the Prince of Wales' 50th birthday - as the brand-leaders of new tribalism. The Charles camp and the Queen's men have constructed an internecine rivalry in the tradition of Montagues and Capulets, Arsenal and Spurs or a brace of territorially challenged baboons. The point at issue is the modernisation of the royal family. The only updating so far is a piece of Hobbesian revisionism, under which the power of the monarch is subsumed to the clout of her spin-doctors.

Spin is the gelling agent of new tribalism. The royals, obsessed by modern PR, fail to see that it has rendered them more dislikeable than ever. The Sun flams up an absurd piece of prejudice on a non-existent gay mafia, content to barter honesty for dubious free publicity.

Meanwhile, down at the Women's Unit, someone dithered. So far, this government has done some good things for women. A national childcare strategy, tax credits and the inclusion of single parents in the New Deal constitute a reasonable start. Jay's initiatives, particularly on income disparity and the difficulties of combining work and family, are worth watching.

Two problems intervened. The first was the difficulty in knowing what to do about teenagers: hard to evaluate but simple to stereotype. Hence the idea of role models: an echo of the Home Secretary's line on family policy, in which gimmickry trumps substance. The second problem was a longing, however subliminal, for publicity. Since neither unsocial hours for nurses nor panic buttons for battered wives might shift the spinometer needle, a selling point was needed. Enter Geri Halliwell: redundant warbler, famous for nothing of merit and living proof that educational qualifications are a less reliable guarantee of success than knicker-flashing.

Teenage girls, patronisingly cast as a tribe of Spice Girl groupies, were depressed. So, one hopes, was the Women's Unit, undermined by a paradox of its own devising. Its better ideas were reasonably aired in serious newspapers beloved of the seventies feminists whose priorities it has remaindered.

Ordinary girls and women, its new targets, would only have inferred that the new aim is the Barbiefication of Britain - an outcome best described, in male tribal parlance, as a spectacular own goal.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians