Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

The dangers of living by the media sword
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The Independent Online

"Just how bad is it?" the man from Downing Street asked me. "On the Richter scale of bad to terrible, it is terrible," I replied.

True, Tony Blair has had a lot of "worst weeks." But the past five days takes some beating. It doesn't mean the game is up for him. It does mean it will be harder for him to survive poor results in the local elections in England on Thursday.

On their own, the disastrous release of foreign prisoners, the National Health Service job cuts or John Prescott's decision to conduct affairs of state with his secretary would have been damaging enough. By peaking on the same day, the three crises created the most dangerous media firestorm Mr Blair has faced since 1997.

However, comparisons with the Tories' "Black Wednesday" in 1992 are well wide of the mark. On that day, a party built on its reputation for economic competence lost it. Rarely for a political event, most people noticed; they were directly affected as interest rates were jacked up. Word travelled fast among visitors to museums and galleries in London. They seemed better informed than the most senior Cabinet ministers, who huddled round a transistor radio to find out what was happening on the financial markets.

It is true that people are fed up with Mr Blair. But they do not yet hate the Government in the way they came to revile the Tories.

There is time for Labour to recover under new management. But I suspect that Mr Blair cannot recover his personal authority. He will reshuffle his Cabinet pack after the local elections to give his team a "fresh" look. But it won't cut much ice with the people visiting the museums and galleries. Most of them won't even notice.

The past week was so bad precisely because the two political issues at stake - crime and health - do matter to ordinary people. "They think we are no longer on their side," admitted one Blair loyalist.

All the same, seven out of 10 people say their own experience of the NHS is "good" and only 17% "bad," according to Populus. The danger of the job cuts is that the "perception gap" between people's experience and their less favourable view of the NHS generally could widen.

On Monday, Mr Blair gave an effective presentation on the Government's record on health at his monthly press conference, complete with slide show. If he could get the message into every household, the perception gap would close.

A Prime Minister who thinks in headlines hoped to get "Blair defends record on NHS" from his press conference. He wasn't to know that Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, would inadvertently grab the headlines by being booed when she addressed the Unison union - only to suffer an even worse fate at the hands of the more moderate Royal College of Nursing two days later.

Although the NHS crisis will be with us for a few years yet, it is manageable. Too many of the extra billions have been gobbled up in pay but the service is improving, as the falling waiting times show.

The bungling at the Home Office is much more serious. It might not have been noticed by most ordinary people yet. But it certainly will be now that it emerges that some of the 1,023 prisoners not considered for deportation have committed another offence.

This is a deep crisis and Mr Blair knows it is the most serious of the three problems on his plate. Since he first came to prominence as shadow Home Secretary, he has worn his "tough" credentials on crime as a badge of honour. He has also worked overtime to neutralise the immigration and asylum issues by being "tough" on them too.

There is an irony here: the beleaguered Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) took its eye off the foreign prisoners because it was more concerned with asylum-seekers. Why? Because Mr Blair set a headline-grabbing target of ensuring that more asylum-seekers are deported than make unfounded applications each month.

Mistakes by poorly paid staff at the IND, where there is a high turnover, have the potential to do huge political damage - much more so than errors by lowly officials in other departments. But the buck stops with the Home Office, which should have ensured better liaison between its IND and Prison Service and that the issue was addressed quickly after it was first identified in at the start of 2004.

If ministers had paid more attention toparliament, they would have known that the problem had beenuncovered by Richard Bacon, a Tory MP on the Public Accounts Committee. It seems they didn't bother to address an issue that wasn't in the headlines.

Having more than 1,000 foreign offenders roaming our streets must be the stuff of Mr Blair's worst nightmares. David Cameron, the Tory leader, deserves praise for not playing the immigration card. It must have been tempting to do so with the far-right British National Party on the march before the council elections.

Luckily for Mr Cameron, the media spotlight when Thursday's results are known will now fall almostexclusively on Mr Blair. Yesterday there was a telling sign of just how bad things are on the Richter scale: seniorministers campaigning for the elections ran scared of the TV cameras and national press; their photo-opportunities were strictly for the local media. A government that lived by the media sword is now in danger of dying by it.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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