Why the voters appear to have ignored Hutton

The common threat in the Kelly and Westland affairs is that neither hurt the voters in their pockets
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The Independent Online

The House of Commons resumed yesterday, after a seven-week recess during one of the most turbulent periods for Tony Blair's government. Dr David Kelly's body was discovered in the south Oxfordshire woods near his home on the first day of the parliamentary break.

For political commentators who have remained at our posts throughout the aftermath of this tragedy, covering all of the first stage of the Hutton inquiry, this recess period has been one of the most riveting and controversial of modern political history.

By comparison, reporting on the Commons during the next two weeks, before the party conference season begins, will be a relatively tame affair. Many of us cannot wait until next week when the rival attraction of courtroom 73 will again be in session.

We have watched, reported and commentated on every twist and turn of events from the moment a devastated Tony Blair first stepped off his plane in Tokyo, at the end of July, to announce the setting up of the inquiry that would unearth the murkiest aspects of his style of government. It was a far cry from the triumphant Prime Minister who had just taken the US Congress by storm. Since then, events at the Royal Courts of Justice have laid bare a government consumed by a desire to win, at any cost, presentational battles against its enemies.

So far the cost has been high. Mr Blair has finally let go of Alastair Campbell and seeks to give the impression that there will be a new style of government, one that puts a premium on professional civil servants who will restrain the excesses of political spin. The position of the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, hangs by a thread, and Mr Blair and other members of his inner circle wait anxiously for the possibility of being recalled for cross-examination by Lord Hutton.

And yet, Mr Blair resumes his parliamentary duties with barely an opinion poll scratch to concern him. The results of the latest Populus poll are utterly dumbfounding to those of us who have listened and watched the daily testimony of government witnesses.

Trying to make sense of Labour's increased poll lead over the Tories, one must suppose that the relationship between government and people is based on something quite other than its relationship with an excitable media. While we have followed the fine print of every internal e-mail and scrawled notes by ministerial private secretaries, the public, by contrast, have been getting on with their lives - and their holidays - barely troubled by all that has troubled journalists.

Whether the polls would have been any different had the Tories been making a noise over the past few weeks of the Hutton inquiry is a moot point. I still believe that their silence on the "Walter Mitty" affair, involving the Downing Street press officer Tom Kelly, cost them a vital opportunity to make the political weather; and their timidity at commenting during the daily sessions in the courtroom has lost them valuable publicity. But even the Liberal Democrats, who were alert to the media invitations that came their way, seem to have suffered a reversal of the gains they made at the beginning of August.

It may be that the public has simply refused to engage with the political process during the month of August. Most normal people, when the temperature is consistently in the upper 80s, probably have better things to do with their lives. And the holiday season is not exactly the time when many are glued to the news bulletins or newspapers.

The crisis for the Government seems more to parallel that of the Tories' Westland affair in 1986. A febrile atmosphere then led to two ministerial resignations: Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan. While these events seized the Westminster village, they left the general public utterly bemused. We know, from various political diaries, that the affair had the potential to bring about Margaret Thatcher's resignation. Yet within six months, the Tory government had recovered its nerve and by the autumn party conference it had set about rebuilding itself for a third term.

The most common thread in both the Kelly and Westland affairs is that neither hurt the voters where it matters - in their daily lives or in their pockets. For all the media's sound and fury, the "feelgood" factor remains as unaffected for Labour today as it was for the Tories in 1986.

Bill Clinton's election dictum of 1992 - "It's the economy, stupid" - remains apt today. And the economy still appears benign. In August, mortgage holders with variable rates received yet another notice of lower monthly repayments. This goes some way to nullifying the April increase in national insurance contributions. Equally, a government decision that impacts adversely on all voters causes opinion poll retribution to follow. The fuel tax increases in 2000 led to the fuel blockade and motorists throughout the country queued for petrol. Though the pain turned out to be short-lived, millions were directly affected.

Voters seem able to screen out the sound and fury of the political and media debate. And while there is undoubtedly a general feeling of voter mistrust, the Government's main achievement has somehow been to ensure that this mistrust is spread across to all politicians, all political parties and to the political process in general.