The media column - Peter Wilby finds too many papers lacking teeth
Splits used to be thought bad for political parties, but new Labour has managed to turn this rule
If I were Gordon Brown, I would worry about what happens when the man next door finally goes. The political correspondents and commentators will then need a new framework - or paradigm, as the academics would call it - for interpreting politics to their readers. At present, the default setting for any political story is the Blair-Brown feud. So within hours of the Labour Party treasurer, Jack Dromey, going on TV to expose the "loans-for-honours" scandal, the papers were explaining the real story. You thought it was about honest Labour folk believing their party shouldn't incur obligations to the stinking rich? Don't be so naive!
Dromey did his best to look and sound like a man of principle who had decided, with a heavy heart, to tell the truth. But he wasn't going to get away with it. In the London Evening Standard the next day, the headline announced: "Dromey sticks the knife in while Blair is on the back foot". The Sun explained that "Jack Dromey is a mischief-making union lefty famed for nursing grievances". True, the loans "broke the spirit of the law", but Dromey should have followed "the first rule" of trade unionism which, the Sun explained - drawing on all the authority that derives from printing at non-union Wapping - "is to stand by your mates even when they are in the wrong".
Beside the editorial, Trevor Kavanagh revealed that Blair blamed Brown for "teeing up" Dromey. "Mr Dromey," he explained darkly, "is married to Brownite minister Harriet Harman." Lest readers were in any doubt as to what was afoot, the Standard ran a picture of Dromey looking rigid with terror as Harman loomed over him from behind like Lady Macbeth. According to John Rentoul, the Independent on Sunday's incorrigible Blairite cheerleader (though, on the loans, he admitted that Blair is "without a leg to stand on"), Harman hopes to be deputy leader under Brown, while Dromey hopes to get a safe Commons seat.
Splits used to be thought bad for political parties. It is part of new Labour's genius to have turned this rule on its head. All stories now become part of the Blair-Brown drama, and anything the Tories have to say goes down-page. So does any story that doesn't yield a Blair-Brown angle. For example, by the end of this month, thousands of dentists may have left the NHS, forcing millions of patients to go private - an extraordinary prospect when you recall Blair's promise in 1999 that everyone would have access to an NHS dentist. So far, only the Mail and the Express, the middle-market papers, have taken much interest, with the former splashing on the subject last Monday. Perhaps the posh papers think their readers already use private dentistry, while the red tops assume their readers just let their teeth rot.
The dentists may get more attention as the 1 April deadline for their new NHS contracts approaches. Given that this is the season for Harold Wilson nostalgia - I have watched four long TV documentaries and dramas about him this month - perhaps they will be invited for beer and sandwiches at No 10. But for now, the loans story is running nicely. I thought Brown was winning when the Sunday Times, the Guardian and the Economist all proclaimed that Blair must go. Then I turned to the Mail on Sunday and to a column by William Rees-Mogg, known to Private Eye as Mystic Mogg for his inaccurate predictions. "I do not see how Tony Blair can now remain in office," he announced. Sorry, Gordon, you'll have to wait.
How is the Guardian's commentariat coping with the paper's new comment blog, which began just over a week ago? It's early days, and the site is beautifully designed and easy to navigate. However, the effect so far puts one in mind of David Dimbleby trying to act as master of ceremonies in a lap-dancing club.
"What about local government?" asked Bernard Crick. "What about it?" seemed to be the answer. After six days, Crick had elicited just one response. Nor did Martin Kettle, the most prolific blogger among the Guardian's regular columnists (six in the first week), exactly strike a chord with a piece on why Blair likes Silvio Berlusconi.
"Most people in Britain couldn't give a flying monkey FCUK knuckle about Berlusconi either way," was the first reader's comment.
That is the authentic tone of the blogging world, and the Guardian's stable of commentators found it hard to capture. Surprisingly, David Goodhart, editor of the very sober intellectual monthly Prospect, came closest. He launched into an intemperate attack on Stuart Hall and Richard Sennett, "grand oldish men of the intellectual left", who had both criticised new Labour in interviews given to obscure magazines. Hall, he wrote, "has been ill for several years" and Sennett "talks cloudily".
I always suspected a thug was lurking beneath Goodhart's liberal and cerebral exterior. I predict an exciting future for him as a blogger.