Steve Richards: Does the smoking ban mark the return of cabinet government? I don't think so...

Most ministers are conditioned to be servile. Their role is to carry out the wishes of Blair or Brown

The Government hails a ban on smoking that is not really a ban and will probably lead to an increase in cigarette consumption in poorer areas. Parts of the media proclaim a return to cabinet government and a decline in Tony Blair's authority when ministers are not assertive enough and Mr Blair has got his way in all the policy areas that matter to him.

The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is dismissed as a failure when she pushed her luck by going further than Labour's manifesto commitment in relation to a smoking ban. The Defence Secretary, Dr John Reid, is portrayed as a rebel for advocating the original, more limited policy, and one that he drew up in the first place. He was a rebel for supporting his own policy. Not for the first time with this confused and confusing government, nothing is what it seems.

Even after eight years in power, the Government treads cautiously in some areas, compromising to the point of absurdity. We have had the abolition of the hereditary peers - but not quite all of them - Bill. On another front there was the right to roam Bill in which there was no right to roam in some parts of the countryside. There is a ban on fox hunting but fox hunting seems to continue.

Now we have a ban on smoking, but smoking will flourish in pubs where no food is served.

Ms Hewitt deserves praise for recognising that this is an unworkable compromise. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, should get more praise for putting the case for an outright ban. In Ireland where a full ban is popular there is disbelief across the political spectrum at the Government's contrivances.

Ultimately in each of the compromised policy areas the Government has introduced significant changes and deserves immense credit for doing so. The right to roam in the countryside is being extended, the hereditary principle has been challenged and ultimately smoking will be banned. These are important and in some cases historic reforms. But the routes adopted to get there were tortuous with silly consequences. At least in the case of a smoking ban we know how agonisingly tortured the internal ministerial debates have been. Parts of the media call for more candour from ministers. When there are signs of an open debate headlines scream that the indiscipline is a humiliation for Mr Blair.

I am not suggesting that this was a noble attempt by senior ministers to conduct an intelligent debate in public. It was not. They were fighting and posturing over relatively minor differences. Still, they shone a light and some misleading conclusions were reached.

The events of recent days do not point to a revival in cabinet government. Most ministers are conditioned to be servile. On the whole their role is to carry out the wishes of Mr Blair or Gordon Brown. Some of them are happy to perform in this way. Others attempt to adapt as best they can. Recently on Radio 4, I conducted a series of interviews with Mr Blair's former advisers in Downing Street in which they expressed concerns about the downgrading of cabinet government. Sir Stephen Wall told me that on the few occasions in which there were decent discussions in cabinet Mr Blair would conclude by declaring "On verra": We will see.

Soon ministers did see. The policies went ahead as envisaged before the discussions took place. There are some exceptions. On several occasions John Prescott has raised concerns about Mr Blair's agenda. Mr Prescott has blocked the introduction of proportional representation to local government. When Mr Blair first outlined his proposals for "choice" in secondary schools during the summer of last year Mr Prescott also raised his worries.

Not surprisingly he did so again when the proposals were published in a White Paper earlier this week. It would have been an abdication of duty on the part of Mr Prescott if he had failed to do so. If this had been the first time he had stirred, the significance would have been much greater. He has stirred before.

In relation to the smoking ban the ministerial posturing highlights the degree to which the cabinet dances still to prime ministerial tunes. Mr Blair had other matters on his mind this week and was not especially worked up about smoking. For once he did not tell ministers what to think in advance. As a result a few of them thought for themselves. Such was the novelty of the situation no decision was reached for several days.

The much bigger story is not the return of cabinet government, but the opposite. How did ministers allow Mr Blair to get away with his proposals for secondary schools? Here was an incomparably bigger test of cabinet strength and ministers showed their familiar timidity.

Privately several are worried about what they politely call the unintended consequences of Mr Blair's reforms, most specifically a two- tier system in which the worst schools sink further. One suggests that the freer admissions policy will allow schools to select pupils in spite of Downing Street assurances that this will not happen. Another points out that a national policy is being imposed to deal with problems that are almost uniquely related to parts of London.

When I ask them why they did not raise their objections in cabinet I was told they were presented with a fait accompli. The White Paper had already been written. They hope "refinements" will be introduced before the proposals are implemented. But for now Mr Blair's will prevails.

Another test will come with the publication of further reforms to the NHS at the end of the year. Some ministers worry about the guaranteed five-year contracts being offered to the private sector while NHS hospitals compete with less reliable budgets. Will ministers stir as some have done over the relatively trivial issue of a partial or full smoking ban? Do not hold your breath.

The surprise is the passivity of ministers given that we are now in the era of "Blair Unplugged". Mr Blair is playing solo on some issues, convinced he must prevail for the sake of the country and the Labour Party. On the key issues of health, education, anti-terrorist legislation, all aspects of foreign policy, he is in charge.

The culture of extreme ministerial loyalty stems from Labour's fatal indiscipline in the 1980s. In that context Mr Blair's fear of internal dissent and the reluctance of cabinet ministers to cause trouble, are wholly understandable. But at some point more ministers will register the potential dangers I outlined on Tuesday of a new political choreography in which Mr Blair and David Cameron are united against the Labour Party.

Will there be a return to cabinet government when the political situation becomes stormier? "On verra."

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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