'Silly season' stars fight it out

In August, with Parliament in recess and party leaders away, the 'B-team' seizes the limelight
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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

The Labour Party has emerged from the August silly season the clear victors in the battle for a thin political news agenda. But the result has been mixed, with internal grumbles about Tony Blair competing with propaganda coups on water and rail.

The net effect has been to underline John Major's triumph in the Tory leadership election, which has killed the internal dissent that would otherwise have dominated the news.

With Parliament in recess from July until October, and the party leaders in France and Tuscany, August is a dead month in politics. Small stories become big ones and a "B" team of politicians emerges. King of this year's silly season has been Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman.

Mr Dobson's sandstorm of summer press releases is one reason why he always does so well in November's Shadow Cabinet elections. This year, he has routed John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, over the water companies' leaking pipes. He pushed the boat out on 10 August, and outside the silly season his not-exactly-news of how much water is lost in leaks would have died after the 24-hour "news cycle".

But the water companies and Mr Gummer contrived to keep it going with a series of unconvincing responses. Mr Gummer first blamed Denis Healey, Labour Chancellor in the Seventies, then published an "action plan" promising not to do many things and last week ordered an urgent inquiry into whether there was enough water left.

The hidden agenda of Labour's summer is always the looming National Executive and Shadow Cabinet elections. Ballot papers for the first went out last week, and the results will be announced at the party conference in Brighton in October. Mo Mowlam is the leadership candidate for the new woman's place while Jack Straw and Dennis Skinner are slugging it out over who will be "Last Man Out".

Labour's media operation has been very energetic. A classic example was last Tuesday. Almost all the newspapers carried stories on the political make-up of magistrates (generated by Jack Straw, home affairs spokesman), the sell-off of Red Star parcels for pounds 1 (Michael Meacher, transport), absenteeism at the Department of Health (Ian McCartney, employment), Peter Lilley joining the "chicken run" of Cabinet ministers (Mo Mowlam, "summer campaign manager"), and BT's cheap calls costing more in the long run (Nigel Griffiths, consumer affairs).

Conservative efforts have been less successful, after a flying start from the party chairman Brian Mawhinney. He trapped Mr Dobson into suspending Walsall Labour Party by announcing he would visit the town to draw attention to its "loony left" council. But when he followed up with a visit to other supposedly "rotten boroughs", the charges were too old, unspecific or trivial and Labour shrugged them off.

A plan by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to recruit milkmen and postmen as crime-fighters was reported mainly in terms of the derision it received. And John Major's flying visit for an interview in the giveaway Times attracted as much comment for his clothes as for his plan to sort out failing schools.

Tory attempts to exploit Labour's divisions were nothing like as successful as Labour's self-criticism. An article by Richard Burden, the hitherto obscure Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, splashed across the front page of the Times, under the headline "Labour MP attacks Blair 'Kremlin'," triggered a small avalanche of stories of discontent with Blair's leadership.

Tony Blair

News value ***

Visibility factor nil

On holiday in Tuscany and now France, the Labour leader has nevertheless been "the story" in his absence. Even his brief return for the VJ commemorations has prompted speculation about the nature of his chat with Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.

Frank Dobson

News value *

Visibility factor ***

Labour's environment spokes-man has held news conferences nearly every other morning in the Jubilee Room, in the Palace of Westminster. Blundered by mis-timed suspension of Walsall council Labour Party organisation, but scored well on water leaks.

John Prescott

News value *

Visibility factor **

Stood in for Mr Blair until going on holiday himself last week, and was faced with the awkward task of defending the leader. He has alternated between dismissing criticism as "summer madness" and offering no comment.

Mo Mowlam

News value nil

Visibility factor *

Leadership candidate for the third woman's place on Labour's national executive. Northern Ireland portfolio fails to provide media exposure - Labour agrees with the Government - so she was made "summer campaigns manager" and can comment on everything.

John Major

News value nil

Visibility factor *

Broke his French holiday for VJ commemorations and then gave an interview to biographer Bruce Anderson for last week's freesheet Times, pictured in casual gear including pounds 16 Pringle shirt. The interview contained nothing new, with its main point - wanting all schools to opt out - collapsing the next day.

Brian Mawhinney

News value **

Visibility factor **

A flying start for the new Conservative Party chairman. His visit to Walsall provoked Labour to suspend its local party, with the leadership accepting charges of "loonyism". His later tour of the North fizzled out, with a huge dossier of trivial charges against Preston's Labour council gaining no coverage.

John Redwood

News value nil

Visibility factor *

Endless dreary articles in the Times, which backed him for the Tory leadership, a flurry about lone mothers putting children up for adoption (as proposed earlier this year by rival rightwingers, the Institute for Economic Affairs) and a spasm of media interest in the setting up of his new think tank, the Conservative 2000 Foundation.

Paddy Ashdown

News value *

Visibility factor nil

On holiday in France, he has still obtained some coverage for "sharpening" the Liberal Democrats' programme, focusing on education and constitutional reform, and trimming slightly to the Euro-sceptic wind on the single currency. Refrained from visiting Bosnia.

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