New Labour's political antennae have been blunted by power

There is no such thing as 'the end of spin', but the Government needs urgently a cathartic act if it is to regain the voters' trust
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The Independent Online

It takes some doing. Even before Lord Hutton begins his inquiry into the death of David Kelly, the Government manages to keep itself on the front pages as if it is determined to alienate public opinion in advance of the formal proceedings. Dr Kelly is described by a Downing Street source as a Walter Mitty character. In a separate development Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, opts to stay on holiday rather than attend Dr Kelly's funeral. This is hardly a media strategy to win back the trust of the voters.

Both incidents - the clumsy press briefing and Mr Hoon's holiday - highlight a government machine that has become clumsily complacent rather than deliberately malicious. The once sharp antennae of the publicity conscious New Labourites have been blunted by power, and the prospect of power for years to come. Once, the Government saw problems coming from miles away. Now it is the main source of most problems.

I never thought I would write the previous three sentences. New Labour's problem for a long time was a crippling caution, a highly developed sense of where things might go wrong that led to a neurotic caution on all fronts. When the Government was 30 points ahead in the polls during the first term, Mr Blair and his aides would fret that William Hague might have an awesome trick up his sleeve. If Mr Hague alarmed them you can imagine the worries generated by the Daily Mail.

In the early years this was hardly an atmosphere conducive to radical thinking but at least the crises of recent days would not have happened. Mr Blair would have sniffed the political air, recognised the acute sensitivity of the David Kelly case and acted very differently. He would have instructed Mr Hoon to stay for the funeral, recognising that his absence would be seen - however unfairly - as brutal indifference. The media operation would also have been much sharper. Anxious about losing a even a vote Mr Blair would have ordered his media team, in its own interests, to keep quiet until the Hutton inquiry began.

Instead his Government is engulfed by more wretched headlines, with John Prescott privately fulminating as he deals with another fine mess. Mr Prescott has good cause to fulminate. Not for the first time he is in charge when a crisis erupts. Only a few days ago he proclaimed that he would spend the summer highlighting the Government's successes. Oh no he wont. Yesterday he visited a housing estate, but it was not his new housing policies that made the headlines. Mr Prescott appeared on the news bulletins only to comment about Tom Kelly, the Downing Street official who gave the "Walter Mitty" briefing. Tomorrow the Deputy Prime Minister will be at David Kelly's funeral not a location to promote a government initiative, unless he has gone bonkers too.

Mr Prescott has managed this crisis rather well, an example of where his straight-dealing is a useful asset and one the Government should make more use of. When Mr Prescott discovered that Tom Kelly did utter the words "Walter Mitty", they agreed that a mea culpa statement was required rather than more shifty prevarications. Mr Prescott is not one to spin his way out of another spinning crisis.

What is the nature of that crisis? Mr Kelly's briefing was not part of a carefully planned operation. Such a development would be a clear sign the collective forces in Downing Street had gone insane. Imagine the conversation: "Why don't we get it into the newspapers that we regard David Kelly as a fantasist just before his funeral?"

"Brilliant that will get public opinion back on our side. Voters don't trust us, but if we say we don't trust Kelly that would change everything. Voters would come flooding back when we slag off someone who is close to becoming a national hero even before his funeral."

The atmosphere in Downing Street has been highly charged recently, but not that demented. Perhaps Mr Blair and his team were planning to convince Lord Hutton that they were the victims of two unreliable individuals - Dr Kelly and Andrew Gilligan, the BBC correspondent. That is an altogether different matter from seeking headlines in advance of today's funeral, news stories that place Downing Street, rather than David Kelly, in a bad light. Tom Kelly's apology confirms, if confirmation were needed, that his briefing was not part of a crazed pre-arranged plot.

There is also a partial excuse for Mr Hoon's absence from Dr Kelly's funeral. She is called Mrs Hoon. It is not the case that Dr Kelly's widow asked the Defence Secretary to stay away. I have been told she made no such request. This is pretty obvious from the fact that John Prescott will be a guest, representing the Government. In the midst of a family tragedy it is hardly plausible that Mrs Kelly had the time or the inclination to disinvite Mr Hoon, while making sure an invitation was sent to the Deputy Prime Minister as if she was hosting a garden party. The half-hearted defence being made by government insiders on behalf of the absent Mr Hoon is that Mrs Hoon was adamant he took his holiday. As far as Mr Hoon was concerned that was more or less the end of the matter. Ministers are not making much of an effort to claim the excuse provides overwhelming justification for Mr Hoon's priorities. If some of the ministers I have spoken to have any influence on the next cabinet reshuffle, Mr Hoon will soon have plenty of time to spend with his wife.

Some of the reports on these events have been way over the top in their sanctimonious condemnation. But when has the media been any different? A hyper sensitive government would be tip toeing more carefully around the minefields associated with Dr Kelly and his suicide. As a result of exhaustion and the comfort of two massive landslide victories this Government has ceased to be hyper sensitive.

There is no such thing as "the end of spin". Such a state of affairs would have Mr Prescott singing in his bath, but it is a fantasy. Journalists will continue to talk to ministers and their advisers. The conversations will continue to be reported. That happens in every field, not just politics, and always has. But the Government urgently needs a cathartic act in the whole area of spin if it is to ever regain the trust of voters. This autumn Alastair Campbell's successor should take a bow and announce that he or she will hold the regular lobby briefings to journalists in front of the cameras and microphones: "Ladies and Gentlemen - There will be no more formalised darkness."

Mr Blair must accept - and so must other ministers jealous of their moments in the media spotlight - that his media advisers are public figures whether they seek to be or not. This is the only way he will start to demystify "spin". More generally he needs to convince himself and the rest of his team that the voters cannot be taken for granted, even if that means missing a day or two on the beach. In the first term Mr Blair declared a war on complacency. Half way though the second term he has got quite a battle on his hands.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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