A glossy pamphlet, a cabinet away day: signs of a government in peril

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Ignore the opinion polls and sniff the political air. This is a government that is in trouble. Recall the low turnout at the last election. Look at the way ministers are barracked by audiences on TV programmes. Listen to phone-ins. Talk to the Government's disillusioned friends in the think-tanks. It would not take very much for Labour's opinion poll lead to shrink. If it were not for the chronic weakness of the Opposition the lead would have shrunk already.

The Government is aware that it has lost momentum. The publication of a glossy pamphlet on its approach to the public services, a cabinet awayday and a big speech by Tony Blair this Tuesday are all part of an attempt to regain the initiative. There is an echo of John Major's tottering administration in such an assortment of goodies. I can recall Mr Major's spokesman declaring outside Chequers during one of his cabinet awaydays that "the relaunch starts here". The relaunch lasted a few heady hours before the next crisis erupted. That relaunch was in turn relaunched with a big speech by Mr Major. But it was not long before Mr Major was on the ropes again.

Mr Blair is not on the ropes. His difficulties are in a minor key compared with those that destroyed the Major government. Still, those echoes with the early 1990s – an awayday here, a prime ministerial "agenda-setting" speech there – are not entirely misleading.

Halfway through the last parliament William Hague's close ally, Alan Duncan, got to the heart of the Conservatives' great problem. He told me in an interview that "we are still searching for an encore to Thatcher and are nowhere near finding one". He ceased to be Mr Hague's close ally as a result of this perceptive insight. It was so perceptive that it deserves wider application. To some extent, New Labour is still searching for an encore as well. Mr Major dithered hopelessly, unable to come up with a convincing sequel or alternative to Thatcherism. New Labour has also stuttered awkwardly in its search for a coherent narrative, in spite of the massive parliamentary majorities and a benevolent economic climate.

Consider what has happened since the second landslide victory. Stephen Byers has almost renationalised Railtrack but applies a similar structure to the London Underground as the one he rejected for the railways. Ministers preach the need for more devolution of power – it was one of the themes of the Prime Minister's pamphlet on public services – yet impose their policy for the Underground on a reluctant Mayor of London, and seem wary of making the House of Lords more credible. We are told that the decision whether to join the euro is one of the most important of this century, and yet there is virtually no debate on the subject. Indeed when Peter Mandelson uttered a few cautious words on the subject at a gathering last week he joked that he would be struck down by the Treasury as a result. He smiled nervously as if he were only half-joking. Or perhaps he feared that it was the joke that would finish him off.

The Government's response so far to its loss of momentum has been stylistic – the glossy pamphlet, a speech from Mr Blair, an admission by ministers that they are human beings with differing views (it seems that the latest way to be on-message is to be off-message).

This is a mixed dish. The pamphlet on public services was full of vacuous waffle, the sort of document an opposition party normally produces years before an election when it is still undecided on its precise policies. At the end of virtually every sentence in which a worthy objective is outlined, I found myself writing "How?". In the same speech Mr Mandelson claimed that the crisis in the public services – in particular the railways – is "synthetic", manufactured by some newspapers to deter the Government from holding a referendum on the euro. This is the sort of complacency that mistakes the publication of a glossy pamphlet for the implementation of policies that help to make the trains run on time.

The Blair speech this week will, I suspect, be rather better than the pamphlet, in the same way that his recent speech in Cardiff to a Labour conference was one of his best since the election, although its message was lost by his desire to label opponents as "wreckers". In that speech in Cardiff and the one this week, the Prime Minister reclaims the Government's narrative for the second term, including the reform of the public services, increased investment and constructive engagement in Europe.

In many ways it is still a compelling narrative. This is particularly the case in relation to Mr Blair's engagement in Europe. Britain's image in Europe has been transformed by his uniquely sustained determination to build constructive relationships. The Government has also displayed a dogged, plodding, incremental focus on its range of anti-poverty measures introduced since 1997.

When the Government sticks to a line it appears strong. Even better, it can be strong (recall Mr Blair taking on the Tory press over closer defence links with other EU countries in the last parliament). When it has wandered all over the place, lacking any guiding principle, it has ended up, Major-like, in deep trouble.

There is a need for more than stylistic change. The Budget next month will be a pivotal moment in which the case for higher taxes will probably be made, for the first time. But in the meantime, instead of glossy pamphlets, the Government should announce the introduction of regional assemblies with real power. In this pluralistic spirit the financial responsibility for the London Underground should be devolved to the Mayor. Plans for a substantially elected House of Lords should replace the current half-baked proposals. A more open debate on the euro should be encouraged (the Fabian Society has discovered that there has been no open debate since Tony Blair became leader of the party, so tomorrow it is publishing a pamphlet in which the case for and against the euro is expressed. The Treasury is twitching nervously at such a prospect.)

Announcements such as these could arguably be presented as building on existing principles relating to a modest redistribution of wealth, pluralism and the establishment of Britain's voice in Europe.

The times are out of joint. Some of the current onslaught on the Government would have been more apposite in the first term, when spin filled the vacuum while ministers worked out what the heck to do. Still, the honeymoon has long passed. To avoid a relaunch of the relaunch of the relaunch, the Government should be more robustly ideological rather than less.