So many summits - and all that Mr Blair achieves is government by gimmick

Maybe the only way of restoring trust in the Home Office is to let Blunkett get on with his job without interference
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The Independent Online

So Tony Blair "takes control" of immigration policy at the much-vaunted "Downing Street summit" to be held later today. Oh dear. Haven't we been here before? In a remarkable tribute to the new enthusiasm, energy and focus of the research officials in the Tory party, a sheaf of documents was sent to me yesterday, analysing the previous headlines reporting on the Prime Minister's "control summitry".

On 22 May 2002, with asylum applications spiralling out of control, Mr Blair's spin doctors were briefing that he was "taking control" of the crisis. A "confidential" Downing Street document setting out a series of radical possible initiatives was deliberately leaked to several newspapers. The Sun reported that "RAF jets could be used to deport illegal immigrants back to their homelands... And Tony Blair is poised to send Navy warships into action to intercept bogus asylum seekers before they reach our shore."

But once the media spotlight had moved on, the Prime Minister's action plan was quietly forgotten. Neither the Royal Navy nor the RAF has ever been tasked to intercept traffickers smuggling people into Britain.

A couple of months earlier, street crime under Labour had soared. After publication of a set of bad statistics that showed a 38 per cent rise in muggings in London, Mr Blair "took control" of the Government's efforts to reduce street crime with a summit and a tabloid headline reporting that "Tony Blair last night sensationally promised to beat street crime in just five months". But it turned out that the initiative would target only certain areas, and while the pledge was met, it was at the cost of police priorities being distorted with crime rising in other categories.

Then we had "Blair takes control of truancy" in July 2002. The Times Educational Supplement reported that Tony Blair had "taken personal charge of the fight against truancy", and was chairing a committee which included ministers and officials from the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills. But since 1997 despite £600m of initiatives there has been a 22 per cent increase in truanting. In the end, the Government failed utterly in meeting its target of reducing truancy rates by a third and the target was quietly dropped.

Early last year "Blair took control of gun crime", following the shooting of two teenage girls at a New Year's Day party in Birmingham. A "Gun Summit" was hosted at Downing Street. But the PM's intervention into the Home Secretary's brief did not actually cut inner city gun crime. Indeed the detection rate for violent crime (including gun crime) fell in 2002/3 to 50 per cent from a figure of 69 per cent in 1997.

Type in to any search engine the words "Downing Street summit" and long forgotten summits on the dairy industry - "Farm wheels greased with £200 million" (April 2000) - vie with the "eating disorders summit", where "model agency representatives and editors of glossy magazines were summoned to Downing Street by Tessa Jowell to have their knuckles rapped". In addition there was the adoption summit over the Easter recess in 2002. And in May last year, "Bono joined Geldof and other campaigners at a breakfast for Africa summit with Tony Blair". In the end it even became necessary to have a summit on the achievements of the summits and, sure enough, on 16 January this year, the press reported that the Prime Minister intended to hold a "delivery summit" to persuade ministers to make more of an effort across the public services to achieve results that impress voters before the next election. The Tories have noted that this was the point at which ministers stressed the need to abandon more than 130 targets and concentrate, instead, on "smart targets".

This Downing Street "summitry" goes back to the infamous "Touchstone issues" memo covering crime, asylum families and defence which Mr Blair sent to Phillip Gould, his pollster, and which was leaked, before the last general election on a clutch of issues - seemingly disparate - which were in fact linked. "On asylum, we need to be highlighting removals and decisions plus, if the April figures show a reduction, then a downward trend. Also if the benefits Bill really starts to fall, that should be highlighted also." This was, of course, the memo that concluded with the request that "I should be personally associated with as much of this as possible".

Much has been made of Mr Blair's style of government as being similar to Margaret Thatcher's. Actually, in many respects it is in danger of resembling more of Harold Wilson's methods - regularly derided by his opponents as "government by gimmick". Wilson would, more often than not, simply set up a Royal Commission - for the benefit of the next day's headlines - in the hope that his short-term problems would be forever lost in the long grass. There was one infamous occasion, however, when a drainage issue resulted in a front page cartoon caption "Sewage crisis - Wilson steps in".

Although Thatcher was sometimes demonised as a one-woman band, the reality was quite different when contrasted with Mr Blair's style. Robust arguments with her then dominated many cabinet meetings. And it was far from the case that the dominant Prime Minister would necessarily step in to clear up the mess caused by individual departments. Although Downing Street had a small policy unit run by the likes of John Redwood, its authority over the machinery of Whitehall was, by comparison with today's structure, much more limited.

Writing in his autobiography, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, Sir John Nott, the former Defence Secretary, noted that, certainly in the early Thatcher years, decision making in Cabinet was a battle between the just and the unjust - a holy war in which there were only victories or defeats.

Far from being cowed into Prime Ministerial submission, ministers would aggressively defend their departmental fiefdoms from direct interference from Downing Street. Although Jim Prior was subjected to pressure to speed up his trade union reforms, the idea that he would have succumbed to direct instruction from the Prime Minister at a Downing Street "summit" would have resulted in his resignation. And it was this refusal to be browbeaten which led to such high profile resignations such as Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe.

Micromanagement of the kind practised by Mr Blair and Gordon Brown was not then the Downing Street style. Describing a spending round discussion to effect cuts in public expenditure, Nott recalls "No doubt Margaret Thatcher understood all these arguments which everyone in the spending departments grappled with day by day, but she was not interested in them."

Maybe the only way of restoring public trust in the Home Office is for Mr Blair to let Mr Blunkett get on with his job without further interference from Downing Street. It was, after all, the original "Blair takes charge of asylum" summit in the first place that caused the current mess.

mrbrown@pimlico.co.uk

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