Something has gone wrong! So please find a fall guy

Frank Dobson's campaign for mayor of London is not going well. A summer poll showed him lagging behind his opponents in terms of his "recognition factor". A piece in London's Evening Standard revealed that his campaign had used official Labour Party premises and money. Worse, when Dobson persuaded a number of London MPs to write "personal" letters to local party members, the letters turned out to be identical, thus undermining the whole point of the exercise. Finally, a recent Guardian poll showed the former Camden councillor trailing third behind his main rivals, Ken Livingstone and Jeffrey Archer.

Who is guilty of these mistakes? Not Dobbo, claims new Labour. No, not our candidate. Failure mustn't be so close to home. So a Standard article, quoting sources at Dobson's campaign headquarters, placed the blame for the lacklustre performance on his campaign manager's shoulders. Nick Raynsford (minister for housing) is a former mayoral candidate himself - though he sportingly withdrew his candidature the moment Dobbo threw his hat into the ring. Tony Blair himself is said to have asked him to manage the Dobson campaign. That didn't stop poor Raynsford getting the blame and no doubt new Labour leaders would blame him for Dobbo's beard and for his vocabulary of four-letter words if they could.

There's nothing new in political scapegoats. But this government has made a creed of personal responsibility and its buck-passing behaviour smacks of hypocrisy. Remember the disastrous European elections? Margaret Beckett was blamed for that catastrophe: it was whispered that she was off on a caravan holiday instead of at her post, marching the flock to their voting booths. Beckett wasn't on holiday, but the smear stuck.

Remember Gavin Strang? He was minister of transport - a man without a brief, subsumed in a monster department without any clear policy. When the media and the public cottoned on that new Labour was bereft of ideas on an issue that affects everyone at every turn, the bully boys at Millbank immediately looked around for a fall guy. Exit Strang. The same happened to Lord Richard, former leader of the House of Lords. New Labour had not decided what to do with the second chamber, and Richard was given no clear brief. But someone had to pay the price for the paucity of progress. So out with M'Lord.

Over at social security, Harriet Harman suffered a similar fate. She was dismissed for being ineffectual, even though new Labour's welfare policy hadn't been thought through. Her nemesis, Frank Field, was dumped when it became clear he did have a policy, but it didn't sound like something the government would like. And to this illustrious list you could add Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's former press officer, who was the sacrificial lamb when the internecine No 10 v No 11 war kept getting into the papers; and Geoffrey Robinson, proprietor of this magazine and former Treasury minister, who remains the fall guy in the Mandelson loan fiasco.

Scapegoats make good copy. They can also make good sense, when a politician genuinely falls short of our expectations or his party's. But often they are just a bully's ploy to deflect criticism from himself. They send us the message that when things get tough, the toughs at the top cast about for someone to blame - and kick out.

Worse, as new Labour is rapidly finding out, not all fall guys play ball and meekly accept the victim's role. Field got a few very public digs in against Brown as he was cast out of the cabinet. Lady Richard has caused a bit of a stink by publishing her memoirs, which punctiliously chronicle the time when her husband was in office. And Robinson threatens to publish his own book which will reveal . . . well, that would be telling.

Beware. In the end, fall guys don't always fall quietly.