We've had enough of the soap opera, now what about policy?

Diversionary tactics have served the Government well so far. But behind them lie woolliness and dither
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The Independent Online

Sometimes I wonder whether Tony, Gordon, Peter, and perhaps Geoffrey too, got together at Geoffrey's villa in Tuscany and planned it all from the start.

Sometimes I wonder whether Tony, Gordon, Peter, and perhaps Geoffrey too, got together at Geoffrey's villa in Tuscany and planned it all from the start.

"We'll all fall out with each other."

"What will we fall out about?"

"Home loans, who said what to whom after John Smith died, tactics."

"Perhaps one of us could leave the Cabinet in disgrace, not over a policy issue, a home loan perhaps, and come back a few months later. Maybe another of us could leave the Government at the same time, write a book mainly about the private finance initiative and the windfall tax, but which would somehow or other generate more headlines about Tony, Gordon, Peter, perhaps Geoffrey too."

"In the meantime, no one would really notice what we were doing or not doing in government. What a brainwave. Let's have another bottle, Geoffrey."

It must have been one hell of a good bottle because the plan has worked. The feuding has grabbed the headlines although the schemers knife each other in a virtually policy-free vacuum. Geoffrey Robinson's book, published last week and greeted by screaming headlines, is typical. Most of it focuses on policy matters, in which Peter Mandelson does not intrude. Only in a chapter about the single currency does Robinson put the boot in. This has been widely reported as a significant development. Now the schemers are falling out over a policy, the biggest policy of them all. If they get a second term, they will embark upon a bloody battle over the euro, after which the bodies will be carried off the stage never to be seen again.

The Government's "policy" on the euro is so deliberately vague that this may happen. This most cautious of governments has a policy in which all options are open and therefore any political outcome is possible. But the past, the best guide we have got, does not point to a gloriously bloody climax in which Blair and Brown contest a Shakespearean duel. Whenever the euro has become an issue of contention in the first term, Blair has sided with Gordon Brown rather than Mandelson. In his book, Robinson, a long-term Eurosceptic, is fighting old battles on behalf of the Treasury which have already been won.

Quite unfairly, Robinson berates Mandelson for briefing the New Statesman during the Government's bizarre week in October 1997 when ministers were in a state of near hysteria, trying to decide what to do about the single currency. Robinson owns the magazine and should have been delighted that it was granted such access. More significantly, I remember that everyone was briefing the NS that week, including the Treasury. An apparently mighty government, at the height of its popularity, was making up policy as it went along. There was a struggle between the Brown camp, which wanted to rule out entry for the whole of the Parliament, and the Mandelson camp, which wanted to keep the option of entry open. Blair was unsure which way to move. I am told that Alastair Campbell was the decisive factor, swaying Blair towards the Brown option.

As Blair demonstrated in his trip to the Far East last week, when he said he would vote "no" if a referendum were held now, he has again been swayed by the Brown camp. The comment is absolutely in line with the Government's so-called policy. But since the formula allows ministers to accentuate the positive or the negative sides of the euro, it inevitably becomes significant when Blair underlines the negative.

Here is a scene that does not appear in Robinson's book, one that illustrates the fluidity of all of this. During the Labour Party conference in 1997, the Brown entourage gathered in the Chancellor's hotel room to consider a rapprochement with their enemy, Mandelson, who had just been humiliatingly defeated in the elections for the national executive. What was the reason for this unlikely development? At the time, Brown regarded Mandelson as the other strong pro-European at the heart of government. He would be a valuable ally in dealings with Blair, who was going through a more sceptical phase. To Blair's fury, a year later both Brown and Mandelson went to the CBI conference and delivered strong pro-euro speeches. "Brown and Mandelson come out on the euro" the Sun mischievously suggested the following day.

So the two main schemers, Blair and Brown, dance around these issues pragmatically, sometimes swapping roles. They will probably succeed in diminishing the euro as a big electoral issue. But in seeing the euro in terms always of tactics, a game of chess, will they suddenly find the political will and courage to make the case for entry? I would put no money on Britain joining in the second term.

There is another issue over which the schemers dance to the music of the times, changing roles occasionally. Early on, Blair was a reluctant public spender, placing pressure on Brown to find more tax cuts rather than stealthy increases. But now he is a convert to the idea that Britain is an underinvested country. He is more evangelical than Brown on the benefits of big increases in public spending. Only last week he admitted that the Government had underestimated the scale of the problems facing the NHS.

Blair's admission got virtually no coverage, obliterated by the rail crash that followed soon afterwards. Here was another reminder, as if we needed one, of the serious underinvestment in Britain's public services. The Government is investing now, but ministers have left it very late. They have left it even later to revive the London Underground, where the Government has wrongly imposed its expensive public/private partnership on Ken Livingstone.

Robinson was one of the architects of the proposed new structure for the Underground. It is hugely to his credit that, when I worked with him at the New Statesman, he never interfered in editorial policy, as he had promised he would not. The magazine often criticised policies in which he was directly involved. In his book he describes his own magazine's line on the euro as "absurd". He never tried to change it. Neil Kinnock once said to me: "Geoffrey is a bloody enigma. He's even an enigma to himself." He is a well-intentioned enigma, attracted by detailed policy making.

In an appropriately enigmatic way, his most recent political role has not been related to policy. Instead he has revived the illusion that the fatal flaw of this government is the warring personalities at the top. These personalities broadly agree on most of the policy issues. Their flaw is a tendency to act too late, to wait for public opinion to lead them in a bold direction. The Government will be waiting a long time for public opinion to turn on the euro. It has waited for too long already before acting to revive the worst public services in the EU.

The increasingly hostile newspapers do not seem to realise that this is where the Government is vulnerable, on its caution, its uncertain leadership. They think they can damage it by constantly recycling stories about Tony, Gordon, Peter and perhaps Geoffrey too. It was all a plot made in Tuscany. Let's have another bottle of wine, Geoffrey.