Phone-ins, e-mails, texting: radio gets more and more popular because it allows people to take part

As Tony Blair closed the door in the face of the unions last Saturday night, another door around the corner from his former home in Islington, north London, was closing. Granita, the restaurant where Gordon Brown dined with Blair the night before he relinquished the leadership to his friend - once the media's favourite eatery and symbol of everything smart and stylish about new Labour - was finally sold. They are both still in business, but so much has changed since the early Nineties, when a two-term Labour government was just a dream and Granita was still as novel as a sun-dried tomato. The restaurant's co-owner Vikki Leffman explains it thus: "Nigella Lawson once wrote that Granita just felt like the right place to be. For eight or nine years it did, then I just knew it was over."

It took "the scandal of a sex-mad teacher" to move Blair's attack on "the wreckers" off most of the front pages, but inside the papers, the row rumbled on. The ultimate insult came when the GMB union took out full-page advertisements featuring a picture of a baby in an incubator and a nurse, with the headline: "Is she one of the 'wreckers' Tony?"

For the first time, Blair looked alone, isolated - lashing out left (at his own core supporters and their unions) and right (at any Conservative in the country). Where is the gang who created new Labour? Alastair Campbell appears to have taken such a back-seat role that he's in the boot. The loss of Anji Hunter and her deft touch is inestimable. And Peter Mandelson has gone, too. Watching Gordon Brown on GMTV on Tuesday, you realised that he was a man who has changed for ever. Watching him talk about his daughter was heart-breaking. Late in life, he tragically found the one thing he always lacked as a politician - a connection with people.

If Blair can count few friends among the newspapers now - the true legacy of Mandelson and Campbell - the one thing that is still working is the ruthless electronic media machine: there were so many Blairites on television and radio after the "wreckers" speech, all singing from the same song sheet, that it was like the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Nabucco.

You know this government means business when it starts the day with Alistair "He's No" Darling, the Work and Pensions Secretary. A cross between a robot and a Rottweiler, Darling never goes off-message, whatever the question, whatever the time of day. I first heard him growling out of the radio some time after dawn. At 10.45pm, he was on Newsnight, ripping the throat out of a hapless and hopelessly unprepared Damian Green, the Tory spokesman for education and skills. If it were a boxing match, they would have stopped the fight. Iain Duncan Smith, instead, performed well on The World at One, Radio 5 Live and later on Sky, News 24 and Newsnight - clear, concise, believable, unflappable. He deserved better support from his colleagues.

Radio is the new TV - audiences are increasing, outlets proliferating - and talk is no longer cheap. While Channel 4 haemorrhages the 16-34 age group, ITV loses audience share and the BBC scratches its collective head over just about everything, people are turning their radios back on. And participation is part of the new deal, whether through phone-ins, e-mails or texting. It can be no coincidence that the few big success stories on TV are programmes such as Big Brother and Pop Idol. Six million viewers voted last Saturday night to determine the futures of pretty mediocre wannabe pop stars. People may once have liked to watch; now they seem to want to take part.

Sometimes, saviours take the most unlikely of human forms. Riding gently to the rescue of the Tory party are Nicholas Boles, the "gay Tory who aims to modernise the party" (Telegraph), and - who would have guessed it? - the turn-and-turn-again turncoat Ivan "Millionaire" Massow, who has failed to find a spiritual home among new Labour and longs to run barefoot again through the Tory grass roots (Mail on Sunday). The former has just been appointed director of Policy Exchange, a Tory think-tank, and the latter has just stood down (after a little ungentlemanly shoving) as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. It has been dubbed the "Charge of the Lightweight Brigade".

But dismiss Massow at your peril. For those who know him, there is no coincidence in the timing of his attack on conceptual art (which made his position at the ICA untenable) and the delectable four-page spread in the MoS's Night & Day magazine on the Sunday before he "stepped down". The boy is up to something. Could he have those drop-dead blue eyes fixed on a nice, safe Tory seat?

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, decrees that the BBC has a public duty to bore us all into a deep sleep with its political coverage . . . sorry, to provide serious and substantial political coverage. No "dumbing down" of current affairs, she warns the BBC's director general, Greg Dyke. The problem with modern political coverage is not that the programme-makers are dumbing down, but that the politicians are dulling down. New Labour's control freakery and the Tories' fearfulness simply mean that politicians now make bad TV - formulaic, and therefore predictable, their career caution wiping out any shred of personality. Democracy or not, licence fee or not, our elected representatives do not have a God-given right to our prime time.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back