So that's control? What a laugh

For the past few years it has been the Conservatives' constitutional role to lay on the light-hearted entertainment at Westminster. Now that William Hague's party has got beyond a joke, new Labour, always eager to please, is providing the laughs. The handling of Ken Livingstone revives memories of the Major government in its tottering prime and even, dare I say it, of Labour in the dreaded 1980s.

On Tuesday - shades of John Major - the Prime Minister summoned the television crews to Downing Street to give interviews on the mayoral contest. They were sent away again when no decision on the fate of Livingstone could be reached. Other, less privileged, journalists hung around Labour Party headquarters all day - echoes of the early 1980s - awaiting the outcome of the selection panel. Three and a half hours after the news conference was scheduled, the chairman of the panel emerged to declare that they could not make up their minds because Livingstone's answers had been too "fuzzy".

If the selection panel had bothered, two days earlier, to listen to BBC radio's World This Weekend, they would have heard Livingstone state categorically that he would not change his opposition to the partial privatisation of the Tube. There is a serious issue at stake here over whether a potential candidate for a party can oppose a central plank of that party's policy, but Labour's high command had every opportunity to agree a strategy in advance. Instead, a prime ministerial evening was wasted and Livingstone was made to look even more of a martyred hero.

As usual, he came up with a good joke about how it took less time to convict a murderer than Labour was taking over his future. Voters were laughing with Livingstone and at the leadership, a double whammy Labour will have cause to regret.

If this is an example of control freakery, I would hate to be around when the control freaks loosen their iron grip. But then again, "control" and that other non-issue of "spin" have always been red herrings. All leaders are control freaks; it is just that some are better at it than others and some political situations are more conducive to control from the top than others. John Major was always attacked for not being a control freak, although he tried hard enough, removing the whip from MPs, sacking chancellors and vetoing presidents of the European Commission. Largely unnoticed, Hague has become a control freak, especially over Europe.

Tony Blair has successfully imposed his will on the Labour Party, but has done so at a time when either it was desperate for an election win, or basking in the glowing aftermath of victory. (For the details as far as his back-bench MPs are concerned, see Philip Cowley, page 21). Now, five and a half years into his leadership, some of those docile members want to flex their muscles. Controlling his party has become more difficult.

Perversely, the soap opera takes place when the government is giving power away. Margaret Thatcher was a real control freak, abolishing elected bodies and acquiring even the tiniest powers for herself. At one point in the mid-1980s, she and her environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley, were personally responsible for renovating a run-down housing estate in Wolverhampton. Perhaps they did the decorating themselves. Whitehall ruled everywhere. Under Blair, Scotland has its parliament, London will get its assembly and local government is slowly being revived, with some important reforms included in Wednesday's Queen's Speech. These are not the acts of someone who wants to pull every string, or take the paint brush himself to grim homes in the West Midlands.

The Blairites, though, have a tendency to meddle. They are worriers, brought up on four successive election defeats, internal splits, and finally on the anarchy of the Major government. Inside the Downing Street bunker, they don't see things the way outsiders do.

Here is a selection of quotes from private conversations with senior ministers and others since the Labour conference in September:

"I wouldn't bet on us winning a second term. The electorate is volatile and the polls are exaggerating our lead."

"Most of the newspapers are opposed to us and those that are theoretically on our side are critical. We do not have cheerleaders in the media like Thatcher had. The lack of support in the media will finish us off at some point."

"People forget we were out of power for 18 years. We spent the first couple of years learning how to govern."

"The House of Lords could wreck most of our programme."

"How can we move on the single currency when just about every economics commentator in the media is opposed?"

Imagine what they would be like with a majority of ten. But no one can accuse them of complacent arrogance. As I write (on Wednesday), the Livingstone saga has not reached its denouement. Even so, one conclusion applies whatever the outcome. A more relaxed approach would have avoided the farce and also seen off Livingstone. Instead of mistakenly elevating his candidacy into a great defining issue, Livingstone should have been allowed to stand. A simple message from the leadership should have accompanied this act of generosity: "The Conservatives would celebrate a Livingstone candidacy more than anyone else. Presumably London Labour Party members disapprove of the Conservatives more than they adore Ken." But urging Labour's high command to relax a little is like telling Ken Clarke to get angry. It is against nature.

The potentially dangerous mismatch between the way the government is perceived and its own view of the political situation is probably an unavoidable consequence of the landslide victory. Francis Pym had a point when he warned that big majorities can cause problems (always the control freak, Thatcher sacked him a few weeks later).

In the government's case, the huge election victory created an impression of dominance and bossiness which is often at odds with its actual style and intentions. The result obliterated memories of the cautious campaign that preceded it. Overnight, expectations were raised beyond those that had been promised beforehand. At the same time, Blair moved from being an opposition leader who had never tasted power to an all-conquering Prime Minister.

Reaction to the Queen's Speech illustrates the distorting lens through which the government is viewed. Some commentators complain that the legislative proposals are "bossy", others that they lack radical impetus. Yet this government is keeping closer to its manifesto promises than any since the war.

The problem is that the specific pre-election promises were quite small. In my view, as the Major government disintegrated, Labour could have afforded a bolder approach. But that is beside the point. "We will make a difference" was the modest slogan.

The Queen's Speech was prepared in that incremental spirit. There is much to welcome: new powers for councils to introduce congestion charging, the Strategic Rail Authority, the extension of the Race Relations Act to the police, and the right to roam. The reforms of the Child Support Agency and the probation service are also long overdue.

This is far from being a programme put together by a government running out of steam. Indeed, there is more meat here than last year, when ministers had to clear the decks for their constitutional reforms, including the creation of a mayor for London.

For good reason, that innovative proposal is on ministerial minds again now. I suspect that, in years to come, the week will be remembered for the Livingstone saga. We shall have forgotten what will probably be the last major legislative programme of Blair's first term.