Fourteen days that shook the government

Analysis
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Indy Politics

There is something neatly symbolic in the fact that the almost forgotten Ecclestone affair should have come back to haunt the Government when it is languishing for the first time in the polls. It is not Watergate, and several of the facts in the latest disclosures are not new. But the Ecclestone troubles were symbolic of a larger truth New Labour should have learnt but didn't - that its image suffered most acutely precisely when it was most obsessed with image, in that case to the extent of suppressing the truth.

There is something neatly symbolic in the fact that the almost forgotten Ecclestone affair should have come back to haunt the Government when it is languishing for the first time in the polls. It is not Watergate, and several of the facts in the latest disclosures are not new. But the Ecclestone troubles were symbolic of a larger truth New Labour should have learnt but didn't - that its image suffered most acutely precisely when it was most obsessed with image, in that case to the extent of suppressing the truth.

This has not been its only problem -but it has been at the heart of many of them. The Dome would not have been the unqualified political disaster it has been if, first, it had not woefully inflated expectations of its success, and then failed to apologise when it failed. The real anguish over the 75p increase in the state pension would not have been quite as bad if ministers had not kept forcefeeding voters the - to most people - meaningless figures about £6.5bn being spent on pensioners. And disappointment with the impact of public spending would have been less keen if the Chancellor and Prime Minister had not raised expectations back in 1998 with their double-counted and over-dramatic announcements.

This is not meltdown. It is an almost unknown phenomenon for governments to take so long to fall in the polls. Though last week it came perilously close for a few hours, the Government has avoided the humiliation of a devaluation, a Black Wednesday, or even a Westland crisis. But even its internal problems cannot be dismissed as mere froth.

For one thing, it is a paradox that a Cabinet unprecedentedly free of ideological division, is also unprecedentedly uncollegiate. This is not only a matter of the now well-chronicled rivalries at the heart of New Labour in which the Chancellor sometimes appears to be pursuing an agenda at variance with the Prime Minister's. With notable exceptions, ministersare not very good at defending their leader, let alone each other.

Mr Blair is no doubt partly to blame for this because he has been reluctant to reach beyond his court and run anything that could be construed as real cabinet government. But whatever the reasons, while the Cabinet's technocratic modernisers may be good managers, several have failed to make the public case for the Government when it most needed making. It was striking last week that aside from Tony Blair himself, Jack Straw and - after a long gap in which Treasury ministers were rather conspicuous by their absence - Gordon Brown, much of the burden of defending fuel duty on national television fell to Scotish Office ministers.

Cabinet reshuffles are seldom quick fixes for governments in trouble. And these circumstances are no exception. But Mr Blair badly needs some more rounded figures in senior jobs - the Home Office minister Charles Clarke being an obvious but not unique example. Mr Clarke is not a smooth man, but he is capable of speaking in terms more credible than the clichéd New Labour script. And Mr Blair, who in seeking not to make enemies, needs around him more such people he can trust.

And that will matter between now and the election. For if there is one lesson in the polls it is that New Labour's supposedly golden era of image-conscious manipulation of public opinion by mass psychology is well and truly dead.

To regain the trust of a now deeply sceptical electorate, the voters - who have always been more interested in the issues than what Downing Street is pleased to call the "froth" - expect ministers to justify themselves, to argue their case from first principles, to treat them as grown-ups and if a policy cannot to be defended, at least to the extent of winning grudging respect,if not approbation, then to modify it. And, above all, to tell the truth.

Tony Blair was entirely right last week to make a stand against the hauliers and farmers who took to the streets - most of whom believe, deep down, Labour doesn't have the right to be elected - though he could have been noisier in expressing the violation of democracy they represented. He now needs to make a stand for the modern social democratic society he certainly wants,not least against the increasingly vociferous opponents in the press he once tried to court. Such a society, any more than taxes, cannot be conjured by stealth.

The Ecclestone affair should have been the high water mark of pulling fast ones over the voters. Tony Blair - who remains, for all the Government's troubles, Labour's outstanding electoral asset - has the chance next week at Brighton to prove that the larger lessons of that dismal affair have, finally, been learnt.

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