Take your marks, get set, govern!

New Labour promised to be radical in office, but few predicted the whirlwind of change now under way
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Shell-shocked civil servants attending a ministerial drinks party in Whitehall six days after the electoral holocaust muttered among themselves: "They can't keep up this pace."

Oh no? Last week, the tempo actually increased, and the essentially radical nature of New Labour in government became clear. The landscape is changing before our eyes, like a fast-moving computer game.

During the campaign Tony Blair warned that he would be more radical in office, but it was easier to fall back on the assumption that this was just aimed at picking up fundamentalist votes. Now, we know better.

The thick seam of change runs right through their way of governing, from apparently trivial matters of social style to the deadly serious business of reforming the constitution. Last Sunday, the Prime Minister appeared at Chequers in jeans, boots and a Barbour jacket. The next day, Gordon Brown informed Treasury mandarins that he would not wear the official "uniform" of stiff collar, white waistcoat, bow tie and tails when he gives the Chancellor's annual Mansion House address next month. He will appear in a lounge suit, with one of his red ties - almost a uniform itself, but his uniform. The Sun noisily approved the move to an "informal business-like image."

The next item for a dressing-down was the economy. Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, disclosed that the 10 June Budget will "introduce the most significant welfare changes in this country for 50 years." Insiders predict a pounds 13bn revolution emphasising work not welfare. But the news came so thick and fast last week that this rated only a few paragraphs.

On Monday John Reid, the Armed Forces minister, announced a new deal for sufferers of Gulf War Syndrome. The closure of Michael Howard's experimental "boot camp" was foreshadowed, and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, reversed the cruel decision of his predecessor to deport a 21-year-old Nepalese man, Jay Khadka, who had been adopted by a Gloucestershire "community". His adoptive father, Richard Morley, was overjoyed that the new government had stood firm on human rights. Mr Straw "has given all those who seek compassion a fresh hope for the future," he argued. It was the nicest thing anyone had said about Mr Straw for months.

At times, Cabinet ministers seemed to be jostling for attention. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, unveiled his "mission statement", putting human rights at the heart of foreign policy. And in Brussels for his first meeting of European Union finance ministers, Gordon Brown secured agreement for his proposal to cut VAT on fuel to the lowest legal level. Ian McCartney, Competitiveness Minister, promised the unions he would "very quickly" set up a Low Pay Commission to implement a national minimum wage.

All on one day.

ON Tuesday, Mr Blair enlisted the mothers of Dunblane to support his crusade to ban hand-guns. Labour signalled its intention to ban electronic calculators in primary school classes, and leaked the plan to raise pounds 1bn a year by auctioning the airwaves used by mobile-phone freaks and mini- cab drivers. And this was only the curtain-raiser to the Big Idea: a Queen's Speech so stuffed full of business that MPs have been warned not to expect much holiday over the next 18 months. There will be 26 Bills and three White Papers implementing the core of Labour's manifesto.

Such was the pressure of business that Robin Cook will not have time to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech. He had to rush out his announcement of the restoration of trade union membership at GCHQ at Cheltenham, where the government listens in to other people's conversation, a right abolished by Margaret Thatcher 14 years go. On any other day, this would have been a matter for sharp political controversy. Last week, it looked like what it was - an overdue redefinition of patriotism. Mike Grindley, a 59-year- old Chinese technical linguist sacked for refusing to give up his union card, who led the long march for human rights, was almost lost for words.

Amid the euphoria, there are doubts. Tony Blair has promised to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law which will make it a civil wrong, punishable in the courts, for politicians or public servants to infringe the human rights of UK citizens. This is an enormous step. For a start, it will end the anachronistic procession of British citizens to Strasbourg, where cases are heard now. It also place the judges in an extraordinarily strong position vis-a-vis the legislature. Technically - indeed, actually - they could strike down laws passed by the government of the day if they could be construed as contrary to human rights.

This is extraordinary, even more fundamental than Chancellor Brown's handing over of the power to fix interest rates to the Bank of England. The European convention was written in the immediate post-war years, when the fascist and anti-fascist politicians had been judged and found wanting. Quite rightly. The new dawn entrenched the right of individuals via the courts against dodgy governments. But what used to be scathingly referred to as "bourgeois democracy" has triumphed over succeeding decades. Elected politicians have proved to be closer to the public pulse than judges. This could prove to be a most dangerous minefield, albeit sown with the best of intentions.

The next stage of Blair's revolution is devolution. Labour published a generalist prospectus last Thursday, offering a referendum in mid- September, when the Scots - but nobody else - will vote on home rule. The Conservatives in Parliament, gallant in their fewness, tried hard to manufacture a sense of outrage. It was not impressive. Labour's front- bench performance since Parliament reassembled last Wednesday has been ridiculously self-confident.

On Thursday, Ann Taylor, Leader of the Commons, took to the dispatch box for the first time. Watching the proceedings in a Westminster bar, one veteran Labour MP said: "A lot of our people have gone home, and most of those still here are new boys and girls who are too scared to open their mouths. I'd have gone up to help out - if it wasn't clear that Ann was knocking the Tories all round the ground."

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, laid about himself vigorously before turning to his braille script. He was hard, the Tories looked soft. Peter Lilley, the Great Dry Hope of the Tory Party, standing in for Gillian Shephard, was positively obsequious. "I am sure that he will fill his post with great distinction," he said. The sole scandal that afternoon was that there were so few Tory MPs on parade that they had to pass round planted questions intended to undermine Labour's plans to reform Prime Minister's Question Time. Mrs Taylor cut them to pieces. She is going to be a star.

Tony Blair rounded off the most hectic week of government anyone can remember by tackling Northern Ireland, the most intractable problem of all. In Belfast, he buried Labour's traditional policy towards Ireland with the words: "I believe in the United Kingdom, I value the union. My agenda is not a united Ireland." This brave declaration reassured the unionist majority, while his olive branch to republicans made it difficult for Sinn Fein to say "no" to talks.

Of course, the Opposition does have singular problems. Credibility is hard to maintain when one of your most sensible ex-ministers, Ann Widdecombe, casts doubt on the veracity of a serious right-wing contender for the party leadership. The Tories' embarrassing spat over the succession to John Major ran in parallel to Labour's obsessive policy engagement, and made them an exhibition of confusion.

WHILE it is true they have much more experience of it, Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats have been more adaptable to not winning. They are to announce today that their 45 MPs will - for the first time in recorded political history - vote as an Opposition party in favour of the Queen's Speech on Tuesday night. The Lib-Dems are to put down a "reasoned amendment", in the certain knowledge that it will be defeated. They will then back Tony Blair. He could be looking at a realistic majority of around 225 over the Conservatives.

This Labour administration means business, and its ministers have set about their mission with enthusiasm, flair and competence. Things may not yet have got better, as Labour's campaign theme tune promised. But they have certainly got different.