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

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.