I saw them naked; now they're news

I managed it for three days. A news addict on holiday should not buy newspapers. We need breaks from the acres of print that divert us for the rest of the year. "I must not read a newspaper. I will not read a newspaper," I chanted ritualistically. Then I saw a huge, front-page headline suggesting that an old colleague of mine, Bill Bush, was in effect taking over Downing Street and, it implied, the rest of the world. Self-discipline collapsed and I bought three papers in one go.

Bush was everywhere: photos, profiles and assessments of his career. He was competing to fill the August news vacuum with the more familiar names of Mowlam, Hague and Widdecombe. Over a glass of wine or two I recognised that, while these summer stories had little substance, they all pointed to the future, symbolising the big themes of the autumn. Rather horrified, I also saw another common factor linking the four individuals who dominated the front pages. I had seen them all naked or, in the case of the two women, semi-naked. Was it the drink and the summer sun? Not exactly, no. Like the stories, my grotesque vision was partly fantastical, but grounded in reality.

Let us take the stories first. Bill Bush, formerly head of research at the BBC, is not taking over the world, nor will he have much influence over policy. His main task is to help give Downing Street the kind of basic information available to a newspaper, and indeed other Whitehall departments, within seconds of logging on to the computer. For all the talk of centralisation, Downing Street itself remains hugely under-resourced compared with other Whitehall departments.

But the story of his mammoth power resonates because accusations of control-freakery persist and will peak when a decision is made over whether to allow Ken Livingstone to put his name in the mayoral hat. Livingstone's candidacy will almost certainly be blocked unless a candidate with a streak of gravitas and charisma can be found. In my view, Tony Blair - for it will be his decision - has every right to block Livingstone. In the past, leaders have been condemned as "weak" for not intervening in matters involving party members and their candidates. (Remember John Major, Neil Hamilton and his Tatton constituency at the last election.) But Blair would be unwise politically to wield the axe in such a brutal manner. Much more effective would be to allow Livingstone to stand and get beaten. I cannot believe there is nobody capable of doing so.

Which brings us to the second of the August stories that will seep over into the autumn. Will Mo Mowlam be moved? Can Frank Dobson be persuaded at the last moment to stand for mayor? The persistence with which these questions are asked, with ever greater urgency, underlines the poor mismanagement of the July reshuffle. July was always going to be the wrong month for big ministerial changes. The speculation should have been killed off long before it got out of hand. To take one example: if Dobson is to take on Livingstone (as some in Downing Street still hope), Blair could not have dumped him on the back benches in July while he awaited the moment late in the autumn to mount his challenge in the capital.

As it is, Blair has got an excuse to rearrange the chairs once more since George Robertson is leaving the government and, unlike Bill Bush, really will be running the world. I am told it is by no means certain that John Reid will succeed him as defence secretary. Perhaps Mowlam will be given the job. I would not be surprised if Blair has toyed with the idea of giving Paddy Ashdown a ministerial role as well, although this may prove to be a leap too far at a complex mid-term point. But moving Mowlam must be a priority. In my view, she was right to declare that the IRA ceasefire was formally still in place. To do otherwise would have been to kill off the peace process altogether. Had she been reshuffled in July, her successor would almost certainly have made the same decision. But her relationship with the Unionists, never good, is now dire. Perhaps Mowlam's last contribution to the politics of Northern Ireland will have been to take the nightmarish decision herself and allow someone else to step in without such baggage.

The summer attacks on Mowlam had more to do with the gloomy political context than her performance. As far as the Conservatives are concerned, the same goes for the praising of Ann Widdecombe and the savaging of William Hague. In the space of a few weeks, Widdecombe became a national hero while her leader was being relaunched yet again. The monthly relaunches of Hague explain the deification of Widdecombe. The media are not out to praise her, but to damn him. If Hague had not had the misfortune to be elected leader in the worst possible circumstances, we would all be saying that the brilliant young politician, looking so at ease in a baseball cap, should get the top job. But opposition politicians - with no power to implement policies - stand or fall by their media image. Hague has had a bad August without even being in the country. He needs to have a better autumn, but without the remotest hint of a relaunch.

So the overblown stories were not as contrived as they seemed. Nor was my glimpse of political nudity induced entirely by alcohol. Bush, Hague, Widdecombe, Mowlam and myself all joined a gym when it opened a few years ago. Hague and I always seemed to coincide during the week, while Bush and I would discuss the Stability Pact of the Maastricht treaty in the pool on a Saturday afternoon as our kids splashed around us. Mowlam and Widdecombe relaxed, separately I should add, in the jacuzzi. Now two of them are running the country and the other duo are running the Conservative Party. Where did I go wrong?

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?