6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 8


What really happened to the government this August


It was fitting that Tony Blair of all our prime ministers should have been the one to speak to and for the nation as it awoke to so terribly altered a cultural landscape last Sunday. He is a modern politician in very much the same way as Diana, Princess of Wales fought to be a modern member of the royal family. It is 'moder- nity', springing from deeply conservative roots, which characterises Mr Blair's poli- tics, and for which the Princess will be remembered. The two also shared an abil- ity to strike a sympathetic chord with a British public which felt them both to be, at heart, 'ordinary people, just like us'. Of course, it was not true of either of them, but it was a rare gift that people should perceive it so. Like the Princess, though in a different way, Tony Blair can be a great communicator. Britain's first tabloid prime minister was the right man to express what we all felt about Britain's first tabloid princess.

Back in the quagmire of political life, the Princess's death has obliterated the questions which were being asked about Labour's 'bad' August. A view had been forming that the government had fallen apart over the summer because the Prime Minister had been on holiday. Only now he had returned could the rot be stopped.

It is worth noting at the outset that, while there is some truth in them, such comments are a bit rich when they come from the Opposition. A glimmer of inad- vertent humour in this grim week came in Tuesday's Times headline: 'Tories sus- pend all political activity'. Rarely has a stable door been slammed with such pompous gusto. The Tories have been more invisible this summer than any Opposition in the modern era; perhaps with good reason, but invisible neverthe- less. And when they have shown their faces, they have made fools of them- selves. There is no other way to describe it. Mr Hague, with his backwards cap at the funfair and coconut-slurping antics at the carnival, has been excruciating to behold. And only the third division no- hopers who now make up the Parliamen- tary Conservative party's second rank have been worse. I have rarely been so embarrassed as when watching Sir Patrick Cormack, now deputy shadow Leader of the House after 27 years in Parliament, make what looked like his first stab at a television interview.

The Conservatives owe it to the nation to get their act together. A government this powerful needs to be opposed, and August, sloppy though it was, is already forgotten. Labour always spends August attacking itself and jostling for position on the National Executive, and no one can ever remember any of it by the time of the party conferences.

There is some merit in the argument that the government has suffered without the steady hand and sure touch of Mr Blair. If there were not, there would be no point in his being Prime Minister. The process of unravelling really began with the debacle of the 'first hundred days' celebration. Press attention focused exclusively on what was presented as Peter Mandelson's sinisterly powerful role in government, particularly in the absence of the Prime Minister, rather than on Labour's achievements. Before he went on holiday, Mr Blair had private- ly made clear his personal view that to celebrate the first hundred days was tri- umphalist and premature. However, Mr Mandelson and, particularly, Mr Prescott were keen to do something which they knew would make a splash in the dog days of August. Given that he himself would be out of the country, the Prime Minister decided to give them their head. The scheme unravelled. He was right; they were wrong.

Which might seem to lend weight to the theory that the government cannot func- tion without Blair's infallible political touch. The truth, as ever, is a little more pedestrian. Contrary to the commonly accepted myth, it is not Peter Mandelson but Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minis- ter's press secretary, who is responsible for Labour's news management. Mr Man- delson's role is inestimably important, but it is strategic. He chairs each day's 9 a.m. media meeting and is constantly, some say compulsively, talking to the press. But the 18-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week `nuancing' of every detail of the news is no longer his job. That task, which Mr Mandelson introduced to Britain 12 years ago, now falls to the present king of spin, Mr Campbell.

It will come as no surprise, then, that during Labour's ragged August, when even the smallest stories seemed to run out of control, Mr Campbell was on holi- day. So indeed was David Hill, the chief spin doctor of the party machine in Mill- bank Tower, and so were the other senior Labour spin doctors. It is these absences, and above all that of Mr Campbell, rather than that of Mr Blair, which really explain Labour's failure to control the news in the way we have come to expect.

Mr Campbell is a unique figure in British political history, but almost cer- tainly a template for many to come. A poacher-turned-gamekeeper former political journalist, he came in with Mr Blair and will go out with Mr Blair. Unlike Mr Mandelson, Mr Campbell has no personal or political project. Whereas Mr Mandelson often laments the way his communications expertise prevents his `more serious' political interests from coming to the fore, Mr Campbell is one of those unusual people who is doing the job for which they are perfectly suited. He also has the constant ear and com- plete confidence of the Prime Minister, which makes him a powerful political force. And he is a fiercely determined operator. His view, quite clearly expressed to the Parliamentary Lobby in a recent unattributable briefing, is that `We actually quite like publicity — as long as we are in control of it'. His near- est historical equivalent is Sir Bernard Ingham. But Sir Bernard was a career civil servant who went native, and, with due respect to Sir Bernard, Mr Campbell is a much bigger hitter.

The splendid irony, of course, is that Mr Campbell is very relaxed indeed about Labour's bad August. He is particularly comfortable with the notion that the Cab- inet consists of over-competitive children who do nothing but squabble when the teacher is away. For the remedy is surely that the teacher, aided by his able assis- tants, must take a much firmer hand upon his return. Most of Labour's 'off message' August output was fairly tame stuff: Mr Prescott posing with crustaceans and Mr Mandelson shouting at journalists (hardly news, one would have thought). And with the conferences and devolution referen- dums all to come before Parliament reconvenes, Mr Campbell might well think he has a bargain.