Former advisers deliver their verdict on Blair: He just can't say 'no' to the media

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Indy Politics

In a BBC Radio 4 series, eight former Downing Street advisers have lifted the lid on the Prime Minister's style of government. Although they remain loyal to him, some accuse him of pandering to the media in order to be seen to be doing something.

The criticism comes as Mr Blair prepares to mark his return from holiday by launching another initiative on antisocial behaviour today. In a speech, he will announce an expansion of parenting orders and contracts, which will be able to be issued more quickly, by more professionals and before a crime has been committed.

The Prime Minister will argue that "bad parenting" is not a private issue the state can ignore because it must "protect the decent, law-abiding majority from the actions of a dangerous and irresponsible minority whose behaviour threatens decency and society".

Bill Bush, former head of research at No 10, tells the programme: "It is important to get the balance right between the media advisers saying we have to say something and the policy advisers saying we should say something when we have something to say. I would say most of the time, government gets that balance right - but not always."

Dismissing Mr Blair's ill-fated plan for the police to march drunken yobs to cashpoints to pay spot fines as "unnecessary", he adds: "You can actually say 'no' to the media, and saying 'no' to the media a bit more often, I think, would be no bad thing."

Geoff Mulgan, a former Downing Street head of policy, says: "The areas where things worked less well were ones where that wasn't that body of evidence [that policies would work], where the conversations were much narrower or more secretive, and where government tended towards 'initiativitis', knee-jerk actions responding to events or something in the media."

He says that Labour sometimes resorted to "government by anecdote", when decisions were based on the last person a minister had spoken to - such as a headteacher or businessman. He admits that "vested interests" occasionally exercised a malign influence on the governing process on issues such as climate change or pensions because they enjoyed access to the top table.

Mr Mulgan reveals that Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's former director of communications and strategy, inhibited frank discussions because colleagues knew he was keeping a diary to be published after he left No 10. "There's almost nothing more corrosive to the quality of decision-making than a climate or culture in which every participant is secretly writing their diary under the table," he says. Mr Mulgan proposed inserting a clause in the contracts of Downing Street staff to stop them exploiting internal discussions for their own gain. He advises future prime ministers to stop aides writing books as a condition of employment.

The two-part series, Look Back at Power, which begins on Monday, is presented by Steve Richards, The Independent's chief political commentator.

Jon Cruddas, former deputy political secretary and now a Labour MP, argues that focus group discussions with small groups of people and "the dead hand of Middle England" exerted too much influence over Mr Blair. Mr Cruddas, who handled No 10's relations with the trade unions, says Mr Blair would often reach a decision in his own mind before any discussion of policy and work back from there to achieve his desired outcome.

He says the Prime Minister "could forge policy on the basis of the preferences and the prejudices of focus groups or key swing voters, to the detriment of more traditional bodies of ideas or traditions of thought within Labour". He describes policy-making as "an abstract game of positioning" which left the Government disengaged from millions of people.