Is it time for heads to roll in the PM's press office?

Media - Ian Hargreaves

Shortly after new Labour's electoral landslide, I found myself seated next to Peter Mandelson at a dinner. It was an awkward moment, because the then Cabinet Office minister had in the previous year loyally adhered to his threat never to speak to me again, having taken offence at an item in the New Statesman diary (I was then this paper's editor).

In between the asparagus parcels and his speech, however, he vouchsafed a prediction. Spin, he said, could be new Labour's undoing.

It is the curse of the spin-master that he cannot expect to be believed. Was this remark merely an anonymous barb directed at a colleague? Charlie Whelan, perhaps? Alastair Campbell? Or had Mandelson, by then earnestly in search of a personal reputation for political substance, recognised the lethal nature of the tools over which new Labour had achieved such mastery?

This incident crossed my mind when I read the latest assurances from Downing Street that business is being conducted as usual. Notwithstanding the evaporation of the biggest poll lead in modern political history; the bruises left about the Prime Minister's person by the handbags of the Women's Institute; and the sound of Ken Livingstone instructing Tony Blair in the mechanics of big-tent politics from the pages of the Independent - No 10's considered view is that nothing needs to change.

Who knows whether we are supposed to believe this insouciant line? Can it really be sustained when even Philip Gould, the PM's private pollster, is sending memos declaring that Blair "is not believed to be real. He lacks conviction, he is all spin and presentation, he just says things to please people, not because he believes them"? When the Economist has likened Worcester Woman's heckling of the Prime Minister to the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu?

What are we to make of it, those of us who have always insisted that Tony Blair is indeed a man of principle not fudge; a conviction politician in an era when crude ideology provides few signposts to intelligent policy formation in the areas that really matter: health, education and the economy?

The evidence to sustain this approbation extends from Clause Four to the unemployment figures and from devolution to the minimum wage: Blair is a politician bent upon extending access to economic and political opportunity. He rightly believes that this can be achieved only by marshalling a broad coalition that extends beyond Labour's "heartlands".

Even in the dreadful WI speech (although it was no worse than the widely acclaimed version of it delivered to last year's Labour Party conference), there was evidence of Blair's stubborn, even courageous purpose. Can you think of another front-line politician, from any party, who would have raised the subject of gay rights in such a forum?

No, the problem is not the Prime Minister's values or purpose. The problem arises at the intersection between the government's political strategy and its approach to public communication, which combines bullying and sleight of hand in a blend so potent that ministers are no longer believed: not when they recite figures or list achievements and not when they apologise or declare "business as usual". If Downing Street phoned to say you'd won the Lottery, you'd assume it was a hoax.

It has been widely observed that new Labour's cluttering of the airwaves with repetitious and grandiloquent claims may have been necessary in a period of high-octane opposition. But in the hands of a government, this practice becomes offensive. We feel as if our taxes and democratic mandate are going on the wages of those who take us for fools. To counter, as Alastair Campbell does, that the government must spin in order to counter the spin of the newspapers reveals all: it reduces the authority of government to that of the most feckless headline-writer.

Today, even when ministers do something we want them to do, such as boosting NHS finances, our joy is soured by the cynical public-consultation exercise that accompanies it. When they identify a task of high importance, such as welfare reform, they deploy a reckless language of unattainable generalisation. When they do not know what they want to do - as on the euro - they inflame us by implying one thing one day and its opposite the next. When they can't think of anything important to do, they pander to those who want to waste parliament's time on matters of little importance, such as fox-hunting.

The remedy for this problem is obvious. The government's political strategy and its style of communication need to arise from its strategic purpose and its achievable goals, not the reverse. Its words need to be used with discretion, not to be sprayed from a muck-spreader across the voracious hectares of an unsleeping media. Ministers need to return to the idea that, on public platforms, they answer questions, as well as make points.

What is needed goes far beyond Blair's post-Leo realisation that "we don't need to fight every headline". It requires a change of approach from the communications experts who surround the PM; and one so extensive that it is difficult to see it being accomplished without a change in personnel.

With an election round the corner, I don't expect the Prime Minister to heed this advice. But if he doesn't, his next election victory will be a cool affair, followed by a second term so awkward that he will look back on the first as a time of peace and plenty.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs