Steely resolve, not sycophancy, is what Labour needs now

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"Government obsessed with skin" was how Michael Portillo described the Blair administration in the Commons on Tuesday. I think he meant spin, rather than sun lotion - but you never know. Maybe the next leak from Philip Gould's fax machine will confirm that all the voters want is for Tony to top up the tan when he's in Tuscany next week. Certainly that's the level on which some commentators have interpreted the leaked memos - suggesting that all the spinmeisters are interested in is gloss, sheen and snake oil, rather than the real business of government.

"Government obsessed with skin" was how Michael Portillo described the Blair administration in the Commons on Tuesday. I think he meant spin, rather than sun lotion - but you never know. Maybe the next leak from Philip Gould's fax machine will confirm that all the voters want is for Tony to top up the tan when he's in Tuscany next week. Certainly that's the level on which some commentators have interpreted the leaked memos - suggesting that all the spinmeisters are interested in is gloss, sheen and snake oil, rather than the real business of government.

For all the cringeworthy self-aggrandisement of Monday's leak from the Prime Minister's computer - with its toe-curling "I personally should be associated with it" plea (you will, Tony, you will) - it was Wednesday's strategy document from Gould, with its brutal depiction of a government becalmed, that really blew a hole in what should have been Labour's week. It will doubtless lead to Cabinet demands for a Comprehensive Spinning Review.

Blame for Labour's obsession with presentation has variously been spinned on Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and now Philip Gould. To keepers of the Old Labour flame, such as the editor of Tribune, Mark Seddon, this trio of devils aims to turn the People's Party into an airbrushed, colour-co-ordinated policy vacuum. But Gould's musings are far more incisive than that - and in a way more damaging. His assertion is that Labour's policy, not just its presentation, has gone awry since those heady days of May 1997.

Three years ago "the big mo" was the catchphrase on New Labour lips - and it wasn't a reference to Ms Mowlam's progress in Northern Ireland. It was momentum that they sought, impetus to push forward with their radical agenda to modernise Britain. Within days of coming to office, Labour had a new ethical foreign policy, a newly independent Bank of England, and draft legislation for massive constitutional reform. The sun was shining on New Britain. That fair-weather Blairite Derek Draper even rushed a book into print extolling the achievements of Blair's 100 Days. If Tony could do so much in a few weeks, how much more could he achieve in a few years, Draper confidently asked.

The answer - as Philip Gould recognises - is not much. "For much of the last 18 months, the Government has been drifting, growing almost monthly weaker and more diffuse. Above all else, I have a sense of a government which started with great strength but has seen that strength ebb away and erode as the months and years have passed." And this, remember, was written in late April - weeks before Euan's spree, before the Women's Institute humiliation, even before the local elections.

Damaging as their publication may be, Gould's criticisms are right on the button. Almost imperceptibly, a government elected for its vision and decisiveness has been transmogrified into one almost as beset by drift and dither as its predecessor. And it is lack of coherent policy that is responsible, not lack of presentational skills. Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review attempted to clarify the fuzz of seemingly impenetrable ideas (the many, not the few, stake-holding, Third Way etc, etc) but for many voters it is three years too late.

In that regard, the demands for Gould's head - like the calls for Campbell's before them - are completely misplaced. "Tony Blair should sack Philip Gould forthwith" demanded the Sun. But if Gould's antennae are so sensitive to what real voters are thinking, he must surely be an asset to the Government. It is not Gould's facts that critics object to; it is the leaking of them. And that, until proved otherwise, can hardly be blamed on the messenger.

Much of the furore about Tony's cronies has been centred on the notion that the Prime Minister is surrounding himself with friendly yes-men, who cocoon him from the harsh truths of the world. But Gould is hardly a sycophant: for Blair to hear that "we are not strong enough at the centre" cannot have been welcome breakfast-table reading at No 10. If anything, Gould is forcing Blair to face the painful reality of his own shortcomings.

The danger for Labour of the memo leaks is not, as the Tories would have us believe, that they reveal a delusional prime minister, blithely unaware of how Joe Public is suffering. The worry must be that leak-obsessed paranoia might drive policy-makers into hushed cabals, terrified to commit their thoughts to paper lest Mephistopheles lookalike Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun, splashes their innermost secrets on the front page. If ministers have sleepless nights, tormented that their faxes may be bugged or that their e-mails are being diverted to eviltoryhacker@centraloffice.com, then their eyes will truly go off the ball.

All governments - and all prime ministers - are paranoid to some extent. John Major talked of "the poison" being put out to derail him, coming from "the dispossessed and the never-possessed" on his own side. Harold Wilson thought that the spooks and the South Africans were out to undermine him (courtesy of Peter Wright, we learnt that he was spot on). But the Blair administration has less reason to be paranoid than most. Wilson and Major had minuscule majorities which were vulnerable to destabilisation. Blair has a huge majority and, even on the direst predictions, looks likely to keep a respectable one next time round. The Tories and much of the press may scent blood, but in reality they have little hope.

There was a little-noticed chink of hope in the latest Gould memo. Noting that Labour needs to cross a threshold of voter trust and acceptability, Gould writes that "the bold, radical second term requires that we pass the threshold requirements of the first". Bold? Radical? I can hardly wait. Even before the last election Blairite strategists were suggesting that the long-term ambition was for a relatively anodyne first term to earn back voter trust, keeping to a few limited promises and proving Labour's economic competence, followed by an adventurous and bold second term. But the concern must be that this gutsy resolve will wilt at the first signs of public hostility. If Blair can crumple in the face of William Hague's support for one deranged Norfolk farmer with a shotgun, confidence in his steely determination to press on against public opinion has to be slender. As John Prescott proved last week with his backtrack on anti-car measures, these ministers can do a U-turn faster than Jack Straw's chauffeur.

No government enjoys its private messages going public. To have endured nine embarrassing leaks in as many weeks is - to that extent - a catastrophe. The documents have revealed a government, and particularly a prime minister, caught on the hop, battered by events. But before Tony Blair and his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, are panicked into paranoid molehunts, they should remember the lesson of Richard Nixon. Calling for "the plumbers" to fix government leaks creates more problems than it solves.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.

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