The Prime Minister loses control

Steve Richards finds that, while Hague keeps a firm grip on a sinking ship, Blair has become a victi

The control freak wields his iron rod and what happens? London Labour Party members embrace Ken Livingstone. A junior minister leaves the government to spend more time with his core voters. The newspapers rage against the euro while the value of the pound soars. The Scottish Parliament prepares to vote against tuition fees for students. The fate of Section 28 hangs in the balance, not only in Scotland, but in the rest of the country as well. The Lords kick out plans to reform trial by jury. The hunters still hunt their prey in the countryside. If this is control freakery, imagine what life would be like when matters got out of hand.

The spin-doctor waves his wand and what happens? There are endless hostile articles on the spin-doctor himself. The audience attending BBC's Question Time jeer loudly when a panellist suggests this government has more to it than "spin". Lord Winston's comments on the state of the NHS dominate the front pages of newspapers for three days. Destabilising stories about Mo Mowlam recur against the wishes of the spin-doctor. If these are the consequences of spin, what would it be like if the doctor no longer practised his art?

"Control freakery" and "spin" are the two great distorting myths about this government. If Ken Livingstone becomes Labour's candidate, one of the factors will be the desire of party members to stick two fingers up to the control freak. If the government is prematurely booted out of office, a key factor will be the growing view that it is all about spin rather than substance.

This is madness. The government has many faults, but I cannot recall a time when so many arrows were being furiously thrown at the wrong targets. As I have suggested before, all leaders are control-freaks by instinct; it is simply that some operate in more promising contexts. Tony Blair could control his party from 1994 until recently because the party was happy to be controlled. Having got used to losing elections, it wanted to win one. Blair grabbed his opportunity, but he could not have done so without the opportunity to grab.

The old Conservative Party, with its powerless annual conferences, was built for control freaks. But the autocratic apparatus did not help the autocrat when the party, assuming electoral invincibility, decided to get stroppy. Although William Hague has reformed his party's structures, making it theoretically harder for the leader to lead, he is currently a control freak because no one else wants his job this side of an election. He can do what he likes, as he leads his party towards its expected defeat. His imperious and brutal sacking of John Redwood was the act of someone in complete command. Even so, the changes to the shadow cabinet will make virtually no difference to the party's grim fate at the next election. He is the unrivalled captain of a ship that is still sinking.

This is one of the reasons why Blair, in spite of his dominance over the party machine, has lost control of the London Labour Party. His activists are taking the next general election for granted and ignoring the wider political stage as they cast their votes. Hague has become a more powerful leader because his party is so unpopular. Blair has lost control because his party soars in the polls.

Perversely, Blair is condemned for his obsessive attentiveness to what is happening in the party he leads, although evidence suggests that governing parties tend to atrophy through a lack of control rather than the other way around. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor John Major showed much interest in the state of their party, especially as they seemed able to win elections even when its membership became almost confined to the elderly and the eccentric. But the archaic structure rebounded on Major when he could do nothing about Neil Hamilton's candidacy in Tatton at the last election. He had no powers to intervene and was condemned in the media for his lack of control.

Equally perversely, the "control freakery" debate in the Labour Party has become confused with that over devolution. "Is Blair a control freak or a pluralist?" asked Paddy Ashdown at one point in their intriguing relationship. In the wider context, the answer is that it does not matter. Having given power away to Scotland, there is nothing Blair can do about the Scottish Parliament's opposition to tuition fees. In a way that lacks coherence, this government has given away more power than any in recent times.

Yet the impression persists that Blair is an autocrat assisted by Alastair Campbell, who apparently keeps a pathetically subservient media in line. In reality, the spin-doctors have much less influence on the media than the media has on this government. This is where we get closer to the crux of the government's problems. It tries to please nearly everyone and in doing so risks ending up not pleasing anyone very much.

This is the case over its current problems with the London mayoral elections. With the Daily Mail watching closely, everything had to be done to avoid comparisons with the GLC. In particular, there had to be no tax-raising powers and few other spending powers. The result was that hardly anyone of any stature wanted to stand as mayor. When Neil Kinnock first pressed his old friend Frank Dobson to throw his cap into the ring, the former health secretary was very reluctant. Both of them agreed what the problem was: "No bloody powers!" So voters have the chance to back a risk-free Ken. If the mayor had been given more powers, the Daily Mail might have run a damaging headline, but Dobson would have taken on Livingstone much earlier and, possibly, Mowlam would have thrown her hat into the ring as well.

It is a sign of Dobson's difficulties that Mowlam has no regrets about her decision not to venture into the capital's soap opera, although she is not exactly jumping with joy in the Cabinet Office. Again, her problems have little to do with "spin" and "whispering campaigns". There is a much more important issue of substance connected with the current structure of the Cabinet Office. The thorny issue, as identified to me by one government insider, is the department's ambiguous status. It has no budget. When Cabinet Office ministers chair meetings with ministers and civil servants of other departments, no one is sure whether the Cabinet Office ministers are acting directly on behalf of the Prime Minister or as political heads of a separate department. Much better, according to this Whitehall observer, to make the Cabinet Office officially part of the Prime Minister's Office. This strikes me as a sensible administrative reform - but it probably won't happen because Blair will be worried that the creation of a Prime Ministerial department will reinforce views about control freakery.

The chasm of misperceptions is not confined to the Blairite inner circle and party members in London. It is reflected within the government itself. In Downing Street, there can be a siege mentality at times: the press is against us, the Whitehall departments are better resourced than us, and it is impossible to introduce reforms as quickly as we would like. But some cabinet ministers and junior ministers share a view closer to those rebellious party members. They see the Blairite inner circle as arrogant, exclusive and triumphalist. Peter Kilfoyle, who resigned this week, is not alone. He seeks some independence because he may stand to become Liverpool's first mayor. This, in itself, is revealing. The experience of Dobson suggests that association with the government is an impediment to progress in internal elections. But Kilfoyle's associates tell me that he had become disillusioned with the government's style, as well as some of its priorities. I bump into junior ministers who make the same points most weeks.

How should the inner circle respond to this odd clash of misperceptions? The answer has nothing to do with spin or taking ever greater control of the reins, but everything to do with policies and a sense of direction. More often than it should, given its huge majority and youthfulness, the government appears nearly as faction- ridden and accident prone as the Major administration.

On the single currency, for example, with eerie echoes of the last government, ministers have shifted their position in recent weeks while protesting that they have not. Earlier in January, Stephen Byers told me that business leaders wanted a referendum early in the next parliament. Implicitly, he concurred with their hope. Later he told the World at One that timing was not the issue.

All that mattered was whether Britain met the five economic criteria, not when. The Treasury has had a quiet word with Byers. Or, rather, the Treasury had words with Downing Street, which passed the message on to Byers. I get the impression that the strategy on the euro is being driven by Brown and co-ordinated by Blair.

There is no point in urging greater clarity and sense of purpose in this area. Ministers will coalesce awkwardly around the mantra about entering when the time is right, and that will be that, until the second term has been secured (and, I predict, for a long time after that). But there are areas where the government could acquire distinctive purpose and momentum. On constitutional reform, albeit with a baggage of measures of haphazard origin, the government has been radical. Yet Blair has never made a speech in government that attempts to bring coherence to the variety of changes. He has managed constitutional reform, rather than revelled in it.

Gordon Brown's agenda of making work pay and helping those incapable of work is another distinctive agenda. This should have more potency with Kilfoyle's core voters than any other. Very recently, Byers - who after keeping a low profile during his first year at the DTI is now on two or three programmes most days of the week - suggested that there would be no increase in the minimum wage. Contrary to reports in the weekend's newspapers of 29-30 January, this is Brown's view as well. The Chancellor is waiting to announce an increase with a pre-election flourish in a year's time. But, at the very least this year, a small increase to take inflation into account would have a neutral impact on the economy, while reassuring Kilfoyle's electorate. If caution prevails, it will rebound on the government, as it has done over the limited mayoral powers.

It is policies not personalities that will determine the fate of this government. There is, though, a qualification to Tony Benn's law of politics. If the policies are not bold enough, the personalities will move into the vacuum and tear each other apart.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control