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

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
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

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering