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  1. Politics
28 February 2000

How “sensible“ ministers foul up

The government's biggest embarrassments are created, not by old Labour sillies, but by those closest

By Steve Richards

Towards the end of one of Agatha Christie’s whodunnits, Hercule Poirot turns to his sidekick and declares that he has got it all wrong. Nothing was as it seemed. “Mon ami, the duke was really a blonde countess. The cloakroom was a kitchen. The dagger was a penknife. I have been an imbecile.”

In a similar fashion, the government makes imbeciles of us all. Nothing is what it seems. The control freaks are not in control and have not been for years (Ken Livingstone was elected to Labour’s national executive at the height of the golden honeymoon). The media are not mesmerised by the wicked spin-doctors. On the contrary, they are having a ball at the government’s expense, only averting their mocking gaze when William Hague boards his truck.

And now, mon ami, I spot another illusion. Is not this government driven, above all else, by a desire to appear “sensible”? It might talk a lot about change, but what it really seeks is respectability. It wants to be as far away as possible from Monty Python’s Silly Party. Margaret Thatcher’s government sometimes came very close to being the Silly Party. The poll tax, for example, was a silly policy. This government, with its focus groups and media awareness, would have dropped the poll tax at the first whiff of danger.

Yet surprisingly often it is capable of behaving in a silly way. What is more, when it lapses into silliness, the main culprits tend to be the leading members of the “sensible” faction. Whenever there is a cock-up, Tony Blair’s hand-picked favourites are usually found close to the scene of the crime. Sometimes the fingerprints of the great man himself are all over the wreckage. While those who were supposed to be silly get on with governing (Clare Short, Michael Meacher, Frank Dobson when he was Health Secretary), the sensible faction has brought us the mayoral fiasco, the Welsh shambles, the Millennium Dome, confusion over the euro, the early botched attempt at welfare reform and much more. Even the most dramatic resignation from the cabinet, in very silly circumstances, came from a leading member of the sensible faction.

Mon ami, we need to look again at those who pose as sensible politicians, apparently protecting the silly ones from the errors of their ways. That means focusing on Messrs Blair, Mandelson, Falconer, Byers and Milburn and Madame Harman who was put in charge of welfare reform before mysteriously disappearing. Mandelson also briefly disappeared, but was still, discreetly, at the centre of all activity. The others are all rising stars, especially Lord Falconer who, after Gordon Brown and Mandelson, is possibly the most influential member of the government. He is outside the cabinet, but has his fingers in many pies (to the growing fury, and possibly envy, of some cabinet ministers).

They are all highly intelligent and charming politicians. They can be ruthlessly single-minded. Harman, who was pilloried as a minister for all kinds of reasons, has proved an impressive campaigner for parental rights now that she is a back-bench MP. Falconer, a highly effective operator behind the scenes, has become a natural media performer as well. When I worked in the north-east in the mid-1980s, Byers and Milburn stood out as the outstanding politicians in that region. Yet, one way or another, all these people are linked with cock-ups that in less benign economic circumstances could have caused major political crises.

The mayoral farce is emblematic. The problem is not control freakery, it is to do with policy, general policy direction and, sometimes, specific policy details. Blair’s problems over the London mayor stem from his original decision not to give the post significant powers: for all the fuss and energy over the contest, the victor will have far fewer powers than the last leader of the old Greater London Council. The uninspiring job specification meant that no one with any credibility wanted the job – including, early on, Frank Dobson. Even Ken himself was not desperate for the job a couple of years ago. He went for it because it was the only job on offer, the last throw of the dice. Two years ago, he would have happily accepted a job in the government as a junior minister, but, contrary to reports, he was never offered one.

Why were the mayoral powers so limited? Because the Blairites do not want to alienate anyone, so innovations can be introduced only with great caution. Yes, there will be a mayor. No, he or she will not have any tax-raising powers. Yes, the mayor will be responsible for the London Underground. No, the mayor will not have a say in the financial structure of the Underground. At every stage, the business world has to be kept on board; so do the media (no headlines, please, about the return of the GLC or the threat of high local taxes). The aim was to keep everyone happy. Now everyone is furious.

The Blairites’ light ideological baggage, an asset as they remodelled an unpopular political party, now causes them problems. They have principles and beliefs, but they are loosely defined. Economic efficiency is linked to social justice; they support fair taxation (presumably as opposed to unfair taxation); they want to join a single currency, but only when it is in the country’s economic interests to do so; they believe in giving away a little power from the centre, but not too much. The problem with such broad and inoffensive principles is that they offer little guidance in the formation of policy detail, or on how ministers should react to day-to-day events. So the Blairites have to be on their toes like no other politicians, trying to work out how their boss would want them to react at any given time. There can be quite a delay while the boss himself works out an appropriate response.

It is an exhausting and hazardous business when the entire country is the core constituency. What should one do when a Nazi sympathiser rises to power in Austria? For three days nobody in the government seemed to know. In the end, poor old Prince Charles was used to symbolise disapproval by cancelling a visit. What about the minimum wage? Byers must have thought he was behaving like a model Blairite when he suggested that there would be no increase this year. Then Labour MPs protested and “traditional” supporters moaned. The minimum wage was increased.

How to modernise the NHS? The prudent public spenders would surely want to involve the private sector. But hold on, there’s a flu epidemic, so we’d better promise a big increase in public spending. Should we, after Scotland and Wales, devolve power to the English regions? Maybe, but only to the regions that want it. Should we build the Millennium Dome? We disapprove of high public spending, but we like the idea of a symbolic spectacle, so let’s go ahead. What was Harman to do about welfare reform – follow the much-lauded Frank Field, or the Treasury?

The euro has proved a particular problem to the sensible faction because its members want to appeal to a core constituency of both Eurosceptics and pro-Europeans. Confusion grows. Blair has said several times that he “anticipates a referendum” early in the next term; Gordon Brown repeatedly says – most recently on the Today programme on 22 February – that he expects a review of his economic conditions for entry. The difference is subtle, but important, and the whole thing sounds inept. Byers revealed, in a New Year interview with me, that business leaders want an early referendum. A week later he insisted that timing was not an issue.

This is confusion in a minor key, but it provides the answer to why dazzling, sensible politicians become silly ones. When politicians fail to think through their policies, the potential for chaos is huge. The government came to power without any clear idea of how it wanted to modernise the welfare state, or of how radical it wished to be. That is why Harman failed so spectacularly. It did not fully think through what the Millennium Dome should be all about, which is why Mandelson and Falconer have not had a triumph on their capable hands. Its attitude to pluralism remains confused, hence the mess over the mayor when Blair should be getting credit for giving power away.

It is no coincidence that the biggest successes of this government had plenty of time in opposition to think through their policies as well as what they would say to win an election (an altogether different matter). Brown was shadow chancellor for five years, while David Blunkett was shadow education secretary for three. Both came to office with a carefully worked-out agenda and both took some of their policy specialists from opposition into government.

So, mon ami, in the end it all comes down to policies, policies, policies. When the Blairites know what they are doing, they are the most formidable and impressive politicians of their generation. When they allow themselves to be blown along by events, there is trouble around the corner. Then the silly politicians should keep an eye on the sensible ones and cry: “Watch out, there’s a Blairite about!”

The writer is political editor of the “NS”