Dominic Lawson: The curse of the 24-hour news agenda

As one battle-weary civil servant said to me: 'If you want to send a message, write a letter; laws are too important to be used as a form of advertising'

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One of the most depressing remarks I've ever heard was uttered by a member of New Labour's inner circle in the hours after they had won the 1997 general election. Asked what the incoming government's first priority would be, he said: "To win the next election."

He was as good as his word. The first Labour government for 18 years continued as if they were still in opposition, thinking every day of how to dish the Tories, and viewing the value of every policy initiative in that light. This continued after Tony Blair left office and Gordon Brown took over. Just as Blair had proposed to introduce detention without charge for 90 days for terrorist suspects, not because it was necessary but because it would prove Labour were "tougher on terror" than the Tories, so Gordon Brown tried to introduce a similar law for exactly the same reason.

Blair, it's fair to say, had an additional spur to his proposal effectively to abolish habeas corpus: after the London suicide bombings of July 2005 he wanted to come up with a striking initiative, to persuade the media – and in particular The Sun newspaper – that he was "doing something". This, however, only served to illustrate New Labour's other besetting sin as a party of government: it was at all times feverish in its desire to appease the allegedly ravenous beast it called the "24-hour news cycle". As a way of capturing favourable headlines, its method was successful – for a time. As a way of providing the calm policy formation needed for rational government, it was dreadful.

Will the next Conservative administration – if that is what we are going to get after Thursday's poll – be any less frenetic, any less obsessed with the desire to keep one step ahead of the news cycle? Something David Cameron said to Andrew Marr on Sunday morning gives grounds for hope. He told Marr that he aspired to a government of "quiet effectiveness. We have run government in the last 13 years as a sort of branch of the entertainment industry. It has been 24-hour news and 24-hour government. We are not going to sit in an office with the 24-hour news blaring out, shouting at the headlines".

Although the Tory leader did not mention Gordon Brown, it is known that the Prime Minister behaves in exactly that fashion, to the exasperation of his colleagues, not to mention his long-suffering civil servants. (It is, by the way, sublimely ironic that the 24-hour news media turned out to be the nemesis of New Labour and Gordon Brown, the consequence of the Prime Minister's forgetting that he was attached to a Sky News microphone, and thus broadcasting live to the nation not just a staged encounter with what was supposed to be a tame and specially selected voter, but his normal conduct when faced with anyone who dares question his judgement.)

David Cameron's pattern of behaviour as Leader of the Opposition provides scant evidence to date that he will break with the New Labour style. He has been equally prone to producing instant policies to capture a single day's headlines; and his proposal of a £3-a-week payment to those who decide to get or stay married, accompanied by the observation that "the message matters more than the money" was straight out of the New Labour handbook, which seems to regard legislation as a way of "sending out a message". As one battle-weary civil servant said to me: "If you want to send a message, write a letter: laws are too important to be used as a form of advertising." There speaks the wisdom of one who is employed to frame legislation, rather than just dream up initiatives to capture the imagination of a headline-writer.

In Cameron's defence, it is very difficult for a leader of the opposition, up against a substantial government majority in the House of Commons, to achieve much more than favourable headlines. In a sense he cannot "do" anything: striking postures is about the most he can achieve, which is why opposition leaders tend to be the most frustrated figures to be found in the Palace of Westminster.

The problem for David Cameron – at least if the current opinion polls are any guide to what will happen on 6 May – is that he will not enjoy the sort of Commons majorities which New Labour achieved, let alone the landslide which catapulted Tony Blair into office in 1997. Whereas Blair in his first administration behaved every day as if the next election was just around the corner, and therefore quailed at taking the necessary decisions to reform welfare along the lines introduced in the US by President Clinton, Cameron could well be in a position where another election within a year is very likely. In that situation, it will require genuine political courage to take the measures required to break the system which actively encourages able-bodied people to masquerade as medically unfit for work.

Still, there are grounds for hoping that Cameron does possess the necessary courage. Recently I met one of his most trusted advisers, who insisted that "we will certainly be one of the most hated governments in recent history within a very short time of taking office". This was not said with relish, just in acknowledgement of the dire fiscal state which the Conservatives want to tackle head-on, should they become the next government.

It was perhaps with similar thoughts in mind that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, recently told an American visitor that whichever party won the next election, would be out of power for more than a generation, so unpopular will be the polices it will need to impose. Some readers might recall that the much younger Mervyn King was one of the 364 economists who signed a letter to The Times, condemning Sir Geoffrey Howe's fiscally austere 1981 Budget. Yet the economy began to pick up almost from that point, and kept growing. We will witness exactly the same conflict of opinion at the time of the first "emergency" budget of George Osborne (assuming he gets the opportunity). As much as Cameron wants to distance himself from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher – if only for presentational purposes – his administration will be in a very similar position to hers, circa 1979.

Again, while Cameron on the election trail has tried constantly to define himself in contrast to Margaret Thatcher (with "The Big Society" rebutting her much misinterpreted "No such thing as society"), there is an aspect of her governing style from which he would do well to learn. The lady was not swayed by what appeared from day to day in the newspapers; as for the television news – she hardly watched it at all. Of course, she had people around her who were charged with the job of dealing with the media, but what they never did was devise policies with the chief purpose of feeding the demands of the 24-hour news cycle.

If David Cameron does not want to take his controversial predecessor as a model, let me offer instead the example of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager has for many years refused to talk to the BBC, and has been not much more forthcoming in his dealings with other news media; but Ferguson understands something very well: if you get the results right over the long term, you will earn the public's respect. If you don't, then no amount of ingratiation with the media will preserve you from the public's scorn.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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