When policy is replaced by scandal

Where are all these stories about Geoffrey Robinson's book coming from? That is the question being asked in Downing Street, in various newspaper offices and among Labour MPs, who have become loyal robots while those at the top are seemingly tearing themselves to bits. I have asked the question, too. I even asked Geoffrey himself. He looked up and asked me. Other journalists, knowing that Geoffrey is the proprietor of the New Statesman, have asked me. As if I would tell them first.

I am reminded by this story of a fleeting conversation at the Royal Festival Hall at three in the morning in May 1997, when it became clear that Labour had won a landslide. A young, gyrating Blairite, soon to be propelled into a highly influential position in the government, came up to me and declared: "This is fantastic, but I'm sure I'll wake up in the morning and find that the Tories have won again." The victory, after so many defeats, had a dream-like quality about it. So has much that has followed under a government that still cannot quite believe it is in power with a huge majority. Certainly the eruption over the Robinson book is dream-like. Indeed, as I write, the "row" is disappearing from view and the dream is fading - though it will return again soon. The names Robinson, Brown, Whelan and Mandelson ensure that editors will never tire of this one, even though what "this one" is about is far from clear.

Robinson does not strike me as the type who would sit around fuming, bitter about his departure from government. After all, he has much to be cheerful about, including ownership of the newly profit-making New Statesman. What is more, neither he nor Charlie Whelan would write or say anything that could harm Gordon Brown. Robinson suspects the stories come from Peter Mandelson, although I find it hard to believe that, having been thrown into the maelstrom of Ulster politics, Mandelson would want to stir this particular pot again.

When this government has "rows" or "scandals" they are almost always impossible to pin down precisely. Hence their unreal quality. When Mandelson resigned at Christmas, his departure was such a stunning and unexpected shock that it was quite hard to take in at the time. Meanwhile the tabloids and most of the broadsheets invested thousands to find a killer fact against Robinson. They failed, but he is still out of government.

Blair apologised for meeting Bernie Ecclestone, although he insisted he had done nothing wrong. Ecclestone had donated money to the Labour Party and later met the PM to press his case on tobacco sponsorship in sport. If Blair apologised on every occasion that he met a donor to the Labour Party, he would be saying "sorry" much of the time.

The government's virtual scandals are explained, in my view, by its attachment to virtual policies. The new Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, rightly proclaims that a revolution is required in the NHS. He points out that while we can shop seven days a week, we still have to wait four days for a doctor's appointment. Three cheers for Milburn - but hold on a minute. According to the government, we have already lived through a revolution in the NHS. Frank Dobson's health white paper was hailed as "revolutionary". The introduction of NHS Direct, in which patients can phone for advice, was also a "revolutionary" measure.

John Prescott's transport white paper was both "revolutionary" and "historic", although in reality curbing the number of school runs seemed to be its most immediate objective. Gordon Brown's statement of October 1997 on the single currency was proclaimed, also, as "historic", but really just kicked the awkward issue into the long grass.

A few months later, the welfare green paper launched by Frank Field was described by Field as "historic", "revolutionary", a prime example of the Third Way and goodness knows what else. Whether Field was sacked for believing in the green paper or for not believing in it remains unclear. A year ago this week, Lord Jenkins' report on electoral reform commanded the front pages. Both the appointment of Jenkins and his report were billed as "bold" and, again, "historic", but there is no sign of a new voting system actually being implemented. The Freedom of Information Bill was recently published, ensuring that information is not much freer than before.

Too much of what the government says is at odds with what it is doing. In most areas it is introducing incremental reforms, with both eyes fixed on the conservative instincts of Middle England. Yet Middle England is becoming bolder than the government that courts it so assiduously.

I have a bulging file of editorials from Conservative-supporting newspapers demanding big increases in public spending. The Daily Mail led the campaign for substantial rises in nurses' pay, cheered on by the Sun. In the summer, the Telegraph and the Times bemoaned the underspending by governments on transport. Since the Paddington crash, the same newspapers have been taken aback by suggestions that passengers will have to pay for the costs of improved safety with even higher fares. What do they expect under privatisation? Not surprisingly, a poll in the Guardian shows a large majority of voters wanting the government to buy a big share in Railtrack.

The government should listen to the radical twitches of Middle England and be as daring as its rhetoric. Otherwise it will be blown away by incriminating photos that have not been published, memoirs that have not been completed and ministers who agree on policy but cannot stand the sight of each other.

The gyrating Blairite will wake up one day and discover that, after all, it was just a dream.

This article first appeared in the 01 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham