In recent days, the Government has seemed at the mercy of events: as bereft as a stand-up comedian who has forgotten how to deliver his lines in front of an audience that will no longer buy his act. It has even looked as if this could be the beginning of the end for the Blair Government, if only there were an Opposition leader who could begin to be effective.
But this is not how they see things in Downing Street. Although Tony Blair knows that he is now in a fight, he has lost neither his nerve nor his will to win. Indeed, he is already planning the counter-attack, and it is a bold plan. When Mr Blair told his party that "we are at our best when at our boldest'', he appeared to be making a moral claim. But this latest exercise has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with effrontery. Tony Blair is planning to exploit the departure of Alastair Campbell, his director of communications and strategy, to strengthen his own position.
On Saturday, we were told that after Mr Campbell had gone, Mr Blair would draw the line under recent events and present himself as a spin-free prime minister in charge of a spin-free government. This announcement came in a media report, and it is quite possible that Alastair Campbell himself organised it. Mr Campbell is sufficiently ruthless, cynical, sardonic and loyal to assist Mr Blair to profit from his departure. He would be happy to act as the sponge that had soaked up the poison and had to be thrown away - as long as he could leave a poison-free government behind him.
Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, yesterday launched the second phase of the new anti-spin offensive, in The Independent on Sunday. While criticising the media for their trivial approach to politics, he asserted that: "From Tony Blair and Gordon Brown through Alastair Campbell, this Government has been self-critical about our own tendency for 'spin' in our early years.''
Really. Mr Hain would presumably be able to substantiate that claim from the written record. Even so, any self-critical remarks had as much to do with self-criticism as the judge in the black cap who had just remarked "May God have mercy on your soul'' to the condemned man had to do with mercy.
Mr Hain had a simple deal to offer to the media. If you report events as the Government would wish, we will stop spinning. A good try, Peter, but it will not work.
Nor will Mr Blair's attempts to move beyond spin, not that they are meant to. The Prime Minister merely wants to change his method of operations, from the spin-doctor who performs dramatic, highly publicised surgery, but whose bloodstained gown is becoming increasingly off-putting, to the spin-tailor, who does invisible mending.
The Blair Government could no more survive without spin than a fish could survive without water. The dependence goes back to the very origins of the Blair project. That rested on three founding pillars. The first was a lie; the second, fear; the third, self-deception. The lie was public spending. In the nineties the Blairite spinners managed to persuade the voters that a Tory government that had increased health spending by more than 60 per cent in real terms had almost abolished the National Health Service. The fear came from Tony Blair himself. He knew that he was bringing a left-of-centre party to power in an essentially right-of-centre country, and that many of his backbenchers disliked the middle classes whose votes he so badly needed.
The self-deception came from at least 100 left-wing journalists, academics and commentators who were so ready to do everything for a Labour victory that they repudiated all critical faculties. They were determined to believe in the Blair project. But far from being some grand, thoughtful programme, it was only a spatchcock of improvisation and platitude. No party has ever won an general election with such little scrutiny and with so many of its intellectual supporters behaving in such an unintellectual way.
Electorally, this worked. As a plan for government, it was to lead to an inevitable failure. All the Government's current difficulties with the public sector are the bitter fruit of the founding lie.
The Blairites had known that they were lying about public spending. But they assumed that once in office, they could turn this to their advantage. They would be able to boast about the vast amounts that were already being spent, as if they could take the credit. Early on, this worked. Every time the NHS drew on a Tory-approved budget to allocate funds for cancer patients, Labour ministers would trumpet the news as if no previous government had ever spent any money on cancer.
Then the problems began. Just as their Tory predecessors had, Mr Blair's ministers discovered that in the public sector, huge expenditures often achieve minimal results. For a brief period, Mr Blair seemed ready to respond to this in a way that might have earned him the place in history that he craves. He appeared ready to contemplate radical reform. Then the moment of courage passed. Instead, he merely opted for higher and higher spending, with a predictable outcome: record fiscal deficits for very little improvement in performance. There was no way out of that except spin.
There is, however, one area of policy where the moment of courage did not pass: Iraq. Here, the PM has an insurmountable difficulty. If he had opened his mind and his heart to the British people, explaining the range of reasons and calculations that had led him to take the risk of supporting President Bush, he would now have a claim on public respect. But instead, Mr Blair chose spin and exaggeration. This may be a Prime Minister who has forgotten how to tell the truth.
His Government was born out of spin, has been sustained by spin and will depend on spin until the day it leaves office. Like a child's spinning top, the moment the Blair Government stops spinning is the moment that it falls over.
Nor will it be so easy for the Prime Minister to draw lines under the past, for there is a dead man, David Kelly, whose political inquest has still to be held. In charge, there will be a straightforward, somewhat reserved law lord with a clear intelligence and a strong sense of duty. Nothing will deflect Lord Hutton from establishing the facts, and no amount of spin will enable anyone to conceal them from his inquiry.
As for the Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, these two are, in political terms, like Siamese twins. The most skilled surgeon might be unable to separate them - and anyway, it is not altogether clear which of them is the stronger twin. As regards the Hutton inquiry, Tony Blair will just have to hope that the truth does not turn out to be too damaging. In every other area of government except for Hutton, it will be spin as usual, whatever happens to Alastair Campbell.Reuse content