All at sea without a spin doctor

With his key aides on holiday, Tony Blair's style has been attacked. Serious challenge or summer madness? asks Paul Routledge

WHEN the railway signal workers were on strike last summer, Tony Blair tried to dodge the waiting media by leaving from a side door of 4 Millbank, the complex of broadcasting studios hard by parliament. He didn't want to answer potentially embarrassing questions about the dispute that was disrupting life for millions of commuters.

But the reporters and television crews simply gave chase, and when flight was clearly impossible the Labour leader stopped running and asked them to switch off their cameras. He then dialled his chief spin doctor, Peter Mandelson MP, on his mobile phone to ask him what he should say. Having got the line, that the Opposition does not take sides in an industrial conflict, he parroted it to the quote-thirsty journalists.

The incident spoke volumes, both about Tony Blair's uncertain instincts during strikes and about his dependency on his closest adviser, almost invariably dubbed "Mandy" at Westminster. Last week, probably the party leader's most horrible seven days in his first year of office, Blair was sunning himself in Italy and Mandelson was not around to fix the press. He was also on holiday, in the United States.

So the chapter of disasters was free to unfold, and duly did so. On Monday night, deputy leader John Prescott met Environment spokesman Frank Dobson, the Shadow Cabinet man who is left to mind the political shop during August. They discussed how to play the coming week. Dr Brian Mawhinney, John Major's abrasive new Tory Party chairman, was due in Walsall the next day to launch a campaign against Labour's "loony-left" councils, a well-worn theme but one still dear to Conservative hearts.

What a wheeze it would be, they thought, to spike Mawhinney's guns by announcing the decision - taken some weeks earlier - to suspend the town's district Labour Party for assorted loonery including alleged intimidation and a too-hasty shift towards "Soviet style" neighbourhood governing committees under a Spartist fork-lift truck driver nicknamed Citizen Dave.

It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time: Labour leader gets tough with the militants. That always goes down well with the voters. After Conservative Central Office had put it through it through the mincer, it did not look quite such a winner. Mawhinney must have thought it was his birthday. He seized on the suspension, announced on Radio 4's Today programme by Dobson, as "a panic measure", up-to-the minute evidence that "new Labour" was a sham, no different to old-fashioned "real Labour" that put ideology before good government. The headlines were predictable. "Blair forced to suspend Left bullies" screamed the Daily Telegraph.

According to insiders, the leader did not even know what was happening. But the next calamity was already on the New Statesman and Society presses, and blew the following day. Richard Burden, the hitherto-unknown Labour MP for the motor industry constituency of Birmingham Northfield, excoriated Blair's "inner sanctum" of advisers for monopolising the shaping of policy. "I thought that kind of approach to political leadership went out of fashion when the Berlin Wall came down," he observed, prompting overblown comparisons of the leader's office with the Kremlin, Stalin and the Soviet politburo. Finally, a day later, John Edmonds, leader of the GMB Union (one of the party's largest affiliates), put in his two ha'porth with a Tribune article attacking Blair as "notoriously impatient with people who want to slow the pace of change."

It was an innocent conspiracy of events, a godsend for news editors in a slow week, rather than a deep-laid plot. But for a party so obsessed with image, the week that Labour wobbled has almost certainly done some lasting harm. Some of the shine has gone off, leaving Blair to pick up the pieces when he returns to take part in the state commemoration of VJ Day on Friday.

How wounding has the debacle been? Is it a possibly mortal blow, or simply a moment of "summer madness" as John "I've never been an inner sanctum man in my life" Prescott would have it? Somewhere in between, the evidence suggests. The backlash against Blair's "presidential" style of running the people's party was bound to come some time. His aides could plausibly argue that it is better to have it now, mid-way through the media's silly season, than, say, at the party conference. Like the astonishing opinion poll lead, Labour's unity was always a bit phoney and the return of "real politics" would do Blair no harm.

However, there is a deeper current to the affair than the outspoken comments of an obscure back-bencher. "There is no doubt that Richard is reflecting a widespread feeling in the party," said a left-leaning MP who - like most Labour members with something to lose - would not go on the record. Max Madden, hard-Left MP for Bradford West, who has nothing to lose because he is standing down at the next election, is less inhibited. He blames "small cliques of people, some of them creeping back from the SDP" in the leader's immediate entourage for the rightward shift of the party. "There is genuine concern, particularly among older MPs, about who these people are, and what advice they are giving."

While most of the old guard's bile is being directed at Mandelson, who is correctly perceived as being Blair's most influential adviser, there are also bitter words for Derek Scott, the leader's economic guru, whose SDP candidacy at Swindon effectively lost Labour the seat in the Eighties, and Roger Liddle, another former SDP man, who sits in on a controversial "ad hoc" policy committee chaired by Mandelson. Some MPs argue that these are only surrogate targets for the real one - Blair himself.

Brian Wilson, the fiercely-loyalist Scots MP and industry spokesman, defends Blair's choice of his innermost circle. "Every leader has unelected advisers," he insists. "Part of the trust you place in him is to pick the people who suit his style and direction best." He is unfazed by the "usual suspects" clambering on to the anti-Blair bandwagon. "Has there ever been an August in the past 15 years when Jeremy Corbyn [the Islington MP who said that up to a hundred members shared the NS criticism] did not get on the news to denounce the Labour leadership, whatever one it was at the time? But as the votes over Clause IV and the changes in choosing the Chief Whip show, the great majority of Labour MPs are enthusiastic for reform, rather than reluctant adherents."

Only 24 MPs opposed Blair's plan to wrest control of the Chief Whip's job, making it his choice from the Shadow Cabinet rather than an elected position. However, that may have more to do with the listless political climate at Westminster than with the real scale of internal party hostility. Weekly meetings of the parliamentary Labour party are nowadays so badly attended that even the Shadow Cabinet has been reminded of the need to be there. Attendance has fallen as low as 20 - not one in ten, and Blair's critics argue that this is a direct result of the widespread feeling that policy is made in the leader's office (which has twice as many members as John Smith's) rather than in the PLP.

Education spokesman David Blunkett puts a rather different gloss on this power shift. "Tony Blair's strategy is to leapfrog the Tory agenda, and to ensure at last that Labour is one step ahead of the Tories rather than for ever agonising behind them," he says. A large number of constituencies believe that Blair has leapfrogged too far, particularly on education. A whole raft of highly critical motions for the party conference in October demand the ending of grant-maintained schools of the kind the party leader is sending his son to. There is anger about the "drift" towards accepting GM schools, and one motion talks of "an apparent U-turn in Labour's education policy without proper consultation and discussion." On education and the question of fixing a national minium wage ahead of the election, Blair will have his work cut out to convince delegates that he is on the right track.

Party insiders at Westminster are cheerfully cynical about the way things have developed since John Smith's death. "There is no doubt that a decision was taken that he would have a presidential leadership," said one. "Everything would come from his office. He wants everything under the control of the leader. This is the strategy. I suspect he wants to do in the unions completely, not give them any say in policy-making."

In this development, Blair is helped by the surge in party membership, now well over 300,000. Half of the party has joined since the last election, vast swathes of them since he became leader. Yet the sharp rise in members is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in participation. One north- east MP, a strong proponent of "new Labour", laments: "I have got three hundred new members in my constituency. But I never see them. They don't come to meetings. They are happy just paying their subs." The tenor of the motions to conference bears out this anecdotal evidence. A good many could have come straight out of the hard-Left's golden age in the mid- eighties, indicating that the activists have changed less than Labour's glossy image.

Some change is unexpected, indicating that perhaps Blair has gone too far in beating the Tories at their own game. Tribune, for so long the socialist conscience of the Labour Party, will this week announce that Roy Hattersley, the Gaitskellite scourge of the Left, is to join its platform for a conference fringe meeting in Brighton. The theme is education, and Hattersley has consistently attacked "new Labour" policy on the issue. Richard Burden may be dismissed as a back-bench nobody, unhappy at not being given a front-bench job. But the former deputy leader, who has more experience of government than the entire Shadow Cabinet put together, fires a heavier salvo. He will be speaking shortly after the leader's address. It will be interesting to see how the "inner sanctum" copes with that.

On the Road, p11

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Infrastructure Manager - Southampton - Up to £45K

£35000 - £45000 per annum + 36 days holiday and more: Deerfoot IT Resources Li...

PHP Software Developer - Hertfordshire

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PHP Software Developer - Hertfordshire An es...

Electrical Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Long term contract role - Electrical Pro...

Product Support Engineer - Mechanical

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: You will be working with the support pro...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice