Steve Richards: Trains, the NHS, farming. How the control freaks lost control

The Government dithered its way to a landslide
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There was an emblematic moment towards the end of this year. Several ministers and former ministers took part in a Commons debate on the failure of this country to build a new national football stadium or a decent athletics arena. On one point all the participants in the debate were in complete agreement. Each of them stressed with unflinching self-confidence that they, themselves, were not to blame.

Some former sports ministers pointed the finger at other former sports ministers. A former culture secretary was critical of the Culture Select Committee that had been even more critical of him. As they all stabbed each other in the front, a confused consensus emerged. So many different bodies were involved in the cock-ups that it was impossible to precisely pinpoint where it had all gone wrong. Insecure ministers, quangos, the private sector, local councils and countless other bodies played a role. So many people were responsible for the humiliating shambles that nobody was responsible.

In 2001 political leaders in Britain still tried to pretend that they knew precisely where they were going. But they did not try to pretend very hard. The obstacles were too great and complex for simplistic stridency. Some of the obstacles were self- imposed, others were the result of Britain's failure to invest in infrastructure and public services for more than 30 years. Supposedly mighty ministers pulled levers and nothing happened. Sometimes they had no levers to pull. Other times they chose not to pull them. The confusion became increasingly transparent, a significant shift in British political culture. As foot and mouth raged, the crisis in parts of the NHS deepened and the transport system got even worse, there was no attempt any more to affect Thatcher-like certainty. Across the political spectrum the hectoring affectation of arrogance was replaced by leaders asking openly what the heck they should do about it all.

Even Labour's second landslide election victory did not bring about a renewed self-confidence in the Government. In some ways Tony Blair's victory was an achievement of such stratospheric proportions that no one has bothered to get giddy by reflecting on it for very long. A party that was unelectable nine years ago now commands the political stage while the Conservatives, the most successful political party of the 20th century, whimper from the side. But the campaign had a ghostly quality at the time and seems even less clearly defined now. Labour tiptoed around the big themes – tax, public spending, the euro – while William Hague applied a sledgehammer of cartoon-like proportions. No wonder some voters felt disengaged: their political leaders were not fully engaged either.

Labour's ambiguity was not entirely a product of electoral calculation. It was genuinely ambiguous on the big issues of 2001. Towards the end of the year Tony Blair reaffirmed his faith in the state-owned NHS and hinted at tax rises for the first times since he became leader. Simultaneously he talked vaguely about his belief in the private sector's ability to revive public services. He began the year pleading with Railtrack to get its act together, but ended it realising that prime ministerial exhortation would not get the trains to run on time. Members of Railtrack's board rolled up to Downing Street most days in the spring and then went away again, accountable to their shareholders rather than to the Government.

In October, the Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers, effectively re-nationalised the privatised monopoly, but could not explain why he had done so. His spin-doctor, Jo Moore, in charge of improving his presentation in the media, had so embarrassed him that he went into hiding – unable to present his case, although he had a good one to present. Mr Byers resurfaced but was less sure-footed about answering questions on what precisely would replace Railtrack. A Government that has always been poor at presentation reached a new low – when the minister had a good story to tell he disappeared. When awkward questions were raised about the long-term consequences of the good story the minister was available on every media outlet not answering the questions.

The Conservatives were even more open in their bewildered introspection. Reeling from their second landslide election defeat in a row the most Eurosceptic party in the Western world travelled to Paris, Munich, Oslo and Stockholm in search of new solutions for Britain's public services. Look at the hospitals in France, Germany and Sweden, they proclaimed. But they opposed the higher taxes that Europe was willing to pay for better services. They opposed the euro also, but did not dare speak about it in case they appeared as deranged fanatics.

The clichés, relentlessly applied in 2001, were all wrong. The Government was supposed to be a bunch of control freaks, but a lot of the time was not fully in control. The Conservatives under Iain Duncan Smith were portrayed as a bunch of right-wing fanatics, when they had no policies at all. Their only policy in the latter part of 2001 was to have no policies.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease, with apocalyptic scenes of burning carcasses in Britain's empty countryside, showed how control freakery was little more than a distant aspiration for the Government. Who was in control? The inept Ministry of Agriculture, quangos, local authorities, the National Farmers Union were all involved. There were echoes of sports stadiums here: none of them was to blame. All of them were to blame. In the end, Tony Blair took personal command, dropping all other commitments including a planned general election campaign. No other individual or body in Britain was capable of taking control. If a single cow in the Lake District was found to have foot and mouth only the Prime Minister could act. Even then the so-called control freak was not in control. Mr Blair gave the farmers a veto over policy and virtually let them name their price over levels of compensation. Of all the issues that caused tensions between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown in 2001 the under-reported row over compensation for farmers and the tourist industry was probably the most intense of the lot.

Even on the global stage Mr Blair was not quite as dominant and omnipotent as he seemed in the days after 11 September. An impression was created that Britain was an almost equal partner with the United States in the "war against terrorism". The symbolism was at its most inflated in the hours after the bombing of Afghanistan. President Bush's address was followed minutes later by a sombre Mr Blair, flanked by senior ministers in Downing Street. No one mentioned that Britain's contribution to the air attacks was virtually nil. The US administration is currently considering phase two of the war. It will only welcome Britain's advice if it agrees with whatever President Bush decides to. That is the extent of British influence.

In the war against terrorism Mr Blair rose to the occasion in a different way, by nurturing the international coalition and offering a global vision of a more peaceful world policed by liberal governments, more specifically his liberal government. His speech to the Labour Party conference, when the world was at its most frightened, made John Lennon's "Imagine" seem like a detailed and pragmatic policy document. The words were unrealistic in their soaring ambition, but they were what his audience wanted to hear, that some ordered good could come out of the shapeless chaos of 11 September. In the excitement of it all, the media, political opponents, possibly Mr Blair himself, forgot that a British government lacked the means to achieve very much.

Possibly Israel will dance to American tunes; it will not bow to Britain's demands. Probably British troops can play a constructive role in rebuilding Afghanistan, but that means they cannot be everywhere else as well. A small island that is incapable of running a train service is in no position to be the world's policeman.

Downing Street was becoming almost as obsessed by those trains, or the lack of them, as the rest of us. Like the non-existent football and athletic stadiums, they were symptoms of a wider malaise. Suddenly ministers seemed more willing to try other levers in an attempt to remedy the situation. Tentatively Mr Brown mentioned tax rises. Others put the case for the euro a little more openly, and contemplated, in a range of policy areas, a redistribution of power, giving life to moribund bodies outside Whitehall. By the end of 2001 the control freaks almost dared to take control.