Leading Article: How cynicism about politics threatens to weaken democracy

"WE CAN'T be like the last lot," the Prime Minister and Peter Mandelson agreed, as they reluctantly went their separate ways on the eve of Christmas Eve. Easier said than done, Mr Blair.

Of course, the fact that the Foreign Secretary has provoked his wife into making unkind personal observations about him has no bearing on his ability to serve the public. As a public servant, Robin Cook deserves to be criticised for many things, including selling arms to repressive regimes and talking tough while acting weak in defence of the people of Kosovo. But, whatever one thinks of the unfortunate conduct of his private life, nothing in Mrs Cook's book should count against him in public office.

However, there is much else on the charge sheet against ministers to encourage public perceptions of them as precisely "like the last lot". Just as with Mr Blair, no one questioned John Major's personal integrity, but he was always two steps behind public opinion in laying down the ethical rules for the conduct of ministers and MPs.

The sex scandals involving David Mellor, Tim Yeo and Piers Merchant may have reinforced a general impression that politicians were "out for what they could get", but most voters understood the distinction between sex and money, which are too often wrapped up by journalists into the single word "sleaze". What really hurt the Conservatives was taking cash for asking parliamentary questions, being secretive about the sources of their party funding and trying to block Lord Nolan's rules for open disclosure.

Now the well polished ministerial shoe is on the other foot. Mr Blair has to explain why Jack Cunningham as Agriculture Minister found it necessary to fly all over Europe by private jet when cheaper scheduled flights were available. It is up to New Labour to explain why so much of its informal core was in hock to Geoffrey Robinson. Above all, it is up to the Prime Minister to explain why, having promised that politics would be different, so much has turned out to be the same.

"Strong leadership", the theme of the Prime Minister's article in The Independent and his speech in Cape Town last week, is the wrong message, and the photo-opportunity in the cockpit of a Tornado the wrong image. There is an awful familiarity about the policy announcements, the "put it behind us" and the "business as usual". What was striking and hopeful about Mr Blair's election victory was his declaration that "the people are the masters now", and that Labour ministers and MPs asked "only to serve" - the epitaph of his predecessor, John Smith.

The Labour MP Austin Mitchell recounts how he was asked how much he paid for his house when he ventured out in his Grimsby constituency. Labour's private polling shows it is increasingly seen as "arrogant and out of touch", according to an internal memo revealed by The Independent last week.

"Politicians, they are all the same," is one of the most corrosive assumptions of the popular mind. For democracy to function, it is essential that political leaders offer the realistic prospect of change. Fortunately for Mr Blair, the Conservatives offer no viable or even visible alternative, which could be an opportunity for Paddy Ashdown. But it is negative and foolish to rely on the weakness of the opposition.

Bill Clinton - another politician who promised a new beginning - said he was getting on with the "people's business" so often that the American electorate is probably beyond cynicism. But getting on with the people's business, serving the people and striving to be - and to be seen to be - purer than pure in their ethical standards is the only hope Mr Blair and his ministers have of genuinely delivering the new politics they promised.