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

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