A cruel month for politicians: Paul Routledge on a silly season that surprised no one but the Conservatives

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The Independent Online
IF THIS is the silly season, a great many Conservative backbench MPs and not a few cabinet ministers must be wondering what the joke is. One public relations disaster has succeeded another, as members of the Government stayed resolutely on holiday.

All, that is, except Michael Portillo, who came back to announce that Europe obliged him to be beastly to the disabled, and then hid in his private office. Avid followers of the scandal had to be content with his new-boy junior, Philip Oppenheim, speaking hesitantly on the telephone from somewhere where the sun was shining and the trains were running. Less than full marks.

The bad news went undefended and nobody made the best of the good news, in particular Thursday's inflation fall to a 27-year low. Where was the self-congratulatory reaction of Chancellor Kenneth Clarke? Or anyone else? Not even the Financial Times could find an approving comment from the Government. This is desultoriness of a high order.

The retreat from reality began when John Major gave his ministers new jobs in last month's cabinet reshuffle and then told everyone to go for a long holiday. Exhausted of Westminster did not need a second prompting, but the resulting vacuum has some Tories shaking their heads in disbelief. What do you do about a government that can't even get the silly season right?

It is not as if they haven't been warned. August has often proved to be the cruellest of months for politicians. Wars begin, coups are mounted, secret affairs surface in the febrile atmosphere of what passes for high summer. This was the month, in 1980, when under Mrs Thatcher unemployment first exceeded two million. A decade later, Moscow was convulsed by the hardliners' abortive coup, plunging stock markets around the world into chaos. Simultaneously, Yugoslavia collapsed into civil war. More importantly for politicians, August is when domestic scandals tend to break. So, two years ago, David Mellor's unfortunate liaison ran for weeks until the story brought him low.

Plainly, it is not the time to relax vigilance. Trouble started four weeks ago as ministers clambered up the aircraft steps. The papers reported that Marks & Spencer was planning to end its long-standing relationship with the Conservatives and pump money into Labour. Little was heard from the Tories about this potentially disastrous defection. Then we had the even more damaging drollery from Rupert Murdoch that he could 'imagine' himself (and presumably his Wapping papers) backing Tony Blair at the next election which provoked only a disbelieving response from John Maple, the former Treasury minister still finding his feet at Central Office.

Virginia Bottomley quit Whitehall for the Isle of Wight, leaving a problem-loaded agenda which brought the ample figure of junior health minister John Bowis on to the television, sometimes twice a day. The networks tired so quickly of taking shots of him walking down the stairs at Richmond House that they asked him to try walking upstairs towards camera. It didn't work, any more than his ministry's insistence that the NHS would look after the old and genuinely sick, or the assurances that once-a-fortnight murders by the mentally disturbed were nothing to worry about, simply a by-product of care in the community.

There was also the business of American medical firms bidding for lucrative chunks of the health service, a prospect not diminished by the other junior health minister, Tom Sackville, opining that he was 'neutral' on the issue of whether the Government or the private sector ran the NHS. This is not what voters expect to hear from the man charged with running the show.

There was more. Faced with the Bay of Biscay Tuna Wars, the new agriculture minister, William Waldegrave, may be forgiven for deserting his post for more cultured climes. It was less easy, however, for his deputy Angela Browning, the new Nicholas Soames, to settle into her role as military despatcher of the Royal Navy on a search and er . . . something mission, which ended disastrously in the escort home of innocent Cornish fishermen. Bringing back Waldegrave for a TV sound- bite did not restore confidence.

Back from his sojourn in Portugal, but apparently not in Downing Street for another week, John Major must be wondering if it was wise to be so generous with holidays. The Opposition has benefitted substantially. The Labour Party's much-trumpeted 'summer offensive' did not come to much, but the Tories' ill-attended troubles have served to prolong Tony Blair's honeymoon. While most of the Shadow Cabinet took part in the annual political migration to the Dordogne/Tuscany, Labour took care to leave behind one of its hard men who could talk to the media - Frank Dobson, transport spokesman and acting head of campaigns. Since the silliness began, he has never been off the television, standing on Westminster Green against a backdrop of the House of Commons where the voters expect their politicians to be. Dobson's designer gruffness was more convincing than the second- division spokesmen wheeled out by the Government.

Indeed, the only own goal scored by Labour during the silly season was shadow Heritage Secretary Mo Mowlam's suggestion that the Queen move out of Buckingham Palace into a purpose-built showcase for British architecture. Her office has had several thousand letters of complaint, some of them containing brand-new Labour Party membership cards torn into pieces.

A reminder, if any be needed, that there is no close season for politics, not even if the Silly Party is in power.

(Photograph omitted)