Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Why PM thinks he's in touch with the people on crime
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The Independent Online

So it's official: the Government does NOT pander to the red-top newspapers and adjust its policies to suit their prejudices and campaigns. That was the firm but unconvincing response from Downing Street and the Home Office after John Reid appeared to bow to the News of the World's campaign for an American-style "Megan's Law" allowing the public to know when paedophiles live in their area.

My mind went back to the entertaining memoirs of Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, who counted how many times he had met Tony Blair over 10 years. "I had 22 lunches, six dinners, six interviews, 24 further one-to-one chats over tea and biscuits, and numerous phone calls with him." Even allowing Mr Morgan a little latitude, his claim is revealing.

And he was only one editor. Considerably more lunches, dinners, tea and biscuits would surely have been expended on Rupert Murdoch's editors and executives. It's a wonder Mr Blair had time to meet anyone else.

Defending his links with Mr Murdoch, he told Mr Morgan: "It is better to ride the tiger's back than let it rip your throat out ... We can't afford to be put through the mincer like Neil Kinnock."

His strategy was right for opposition. But it continued well beyond its shelf life in government. An opposition party can't DO anything, so grabbing headlines provides its oxygen. David Cameron is breathing very healthily now as he follows the Blair 1994-97 playbook.

But governments can do things and change people's lives; they shouldn't just seek headlines or pander to the lowest common denominator policies often put forward by newspapers. And yet the practice was ingrained in New Labour's soul. In 2000, Mr Blair, in a leaked memo to his pollster Philip Gould, expressed his fears over crime, asylum and the family and demanded "eye-catching initiatives", saying: "I should be personally associated with as much of this as possible."

It seems that not much has changed. The sudden revival of the prospect of a "Megan's Law" was an eye-catching initiative if ever there was one.

Two weeks after he became Home Secretary, Mr Reid, his ministers and advisers, agreed to keep a cool head despite the media firestorm that was starting to surround them, to focus on getting key policies right rather than respond to or chase headlines. But the firestorm engulfed them and Mr Reid decided to fight fire with fire by considering a "Megan's Law". Yet no one could explain what had changed since a whole range of experts and politicians, including his predecessors Jack Straw and David Blunkett, accepted that disclosing the whereabouts of paedophiles would risk driving them underground and vigilante attacks.

In a thoughtful, well-argued lecture in Bristol yesterday, Mr Blair answered his critics head-on. He accused the political and legal establishment of being "in denial" because they believed the Government was on a "populist bandwagon, the media whips everyone up into a frenzy and if only everyone calmed down and behaved properly the issue would go away".

He insisted that he was merely responding to genuine anxiety among the decent law-abiding majority, arguing that his torrent of legislation had made a "real difference". He drew the opposite conclusion to critics who say this approach is not the answer because problems still exist: he wants more, speedier and tougher laws. In his critics' eyes, more headline-grabbing initiatives will be along in a minute - when Mr Reid announces his plans next month, including an extension of summary justice such as on-the-spot fines.

The Prime Minister mapped out an ambitious goal - a cultural revolution in the criminal justice system to give more weight to the victims and take account of the modern world. No one could argue with his call for a fundamental debate. His aides insist the speech was long planned. But people will wonder whether it would have been made if the Home Office were not, in his own words, "under siege".

After nine years in power, Mr Blair has left it rather late to embark on a series of speeches with the theme of "our nation's future". It feels more 1996 than 2006. As his time in office runs out, the speeches will inevitably have a valedictory ring to them.

Yesterday's event will have reminded some people of Margaret Thatcher, who grew accustomed to distancing herself from her own government's actions, as if they were nothing to do with her.

It will be interesting to see to what extent Mr Blair's long goodbye show will influence his successor's agenda, which presumably is the main point of starting a great debate about the criminal justice system now. As Gordon Brown showed by announcing his backing for replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system this week, he knows how to send reassuring signals to the public about being tough on security, terrorism and crime.

Yet there has always been a suspicion in the Brown camp that Mr Blair, by reflecting back to the public their own fears about their personal safety, might be magnifying the crime problem, creating a self-fulfilling crisis.

As Ian Loader, a professor of criminology at Oxford University, told the Prime Minister in his highly critical memo: "You seem to take the view that the role of government is to act as an uncritical cipher for public anger and demands viz crime and disorder." Perhaps the hyperactivity explains why fear of crime is rising even though crime is falling, and why the Government gets little credit for that.