Labour goes for the jugular

The Tories seem more concerned to save the meat industry than voters' lives. This mistake could prove fatal

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There is only one absolutely safe prediction to be made about the beef and brain disease affair: the Government's attempt to reassure the nation will calm no one, and harm the Tory cause. All ministers' carefully- worded pleas not to panic, and to carry on eating beef, will sell barely a single extra pie, rump steak or liver.

Why? Because there are too many competing interests in Whitehall, and everyone knows it. The Government's chosen posture on the public health issue has been that of a pipe. Stephen Dorrell stresses the independence of the scientific advice and merely passes it on. He says, in effect, "I am a conduit. I have no views myself."

This is an abdication of the traditional role of politics, to lead and shape opinion. Behaving this way is not bold, though it is honest and rational. But by making this choice, Dorrell also ensures that he himself will not be listened to. After all, he is no authority. He says so himself.

He has, of course, a committee of scientists who give guarded, provisional advice, and who seem uncertain about most of the important questions: how cows get BSE; how much of a carcass is affected; whether it really passes to humans, and, if it does, how many of us might die. They are as near as we have to an authority, but it is not very authoritative authority, for we know that other scientists disagree and paint a much more alarming picture.

Indeed, we may well prefer the other scientists, including the ones derided or sacked for their earlier "alarmist" advice. With the best will in the world, the government conduit for scientific advice is bound to be a bit polluted. Just as journalism contains a bias in favour of hysteria, so there is, inside government, a bias in favour of reassurance, farming and business as usual.

Dorrell himself may be focused on public health - I believe he is - but he and his committees are surrounded by ministers and civil servants with many other things on their minds, mainly costs. In cabinet committees and elsewhere they are thinking about the price of destroying millions of cattle, of paying social security to unemployed farmworkers, introducing new inspection systems, infuriating the farming vote. They are thinking about public borrowing, growth forecasts, rural feel-good, the reputation of Maff, the possibility of legal action.

These are interesting things to be thinking about. But if you are trying to discover whether eating goulash will punch holes through your brain, then they are beside the point. As a consumer, you badly want advice that isn't distracted by the administrative, financial and political nightmare facing the Government.

Yesterday, Labour rammed the ministers' dilemma home by turning the crisis party-political. Harriet Harman, Labour's health front-bencher, fighting hard for her place on the shadow cabinet, made a ferocious assault on the bona fides and record of the Conservatives. Dorrell had learned no lessons from last week, she told the Commons; it was all caused by "deregulation fuelled by complacency".

It was crude, unfair and, I expect, highly effective. Harman's savagery caused real anger on the Tory benches. Some shouted "outrageous" and sounded, for once, as if they meant it. Sir Patrick Cormack attacked the "urban panic being fomented by the benches opposite". Tony Marlow shouted "stupid cow". Dorrell complained that Labour was "ferreting around for party political advantage in the sewers of politics".

I'm not sure whether ferrets hang around in sewers, but I do know that party advantage was exactly what Harman was looking for - and finding. She was painting Labour as the party of innocent, hamburger-loving children, parents, grandparents and so on, and the Tories as the party of farming barons who bring up cannibal cows in sinister rural factories and then howl for compensation when things go wrong.

Do we suppose that had Neil Kinnock won the 1987 general election, Old Englande would have been a land of skipping organic cows, in which all scientific advice was immediately published and acted on? We do not. But there is enough evidence of the close link between the Conservative Party and agriculture for this Harman caricature of the Tories as a party of vested interests to be plausible.

The Tories hold the vast majority of farming constituencies. Wealthy farmers and landowners don't only contribute to party funds; in many places they are the heart and spine (as well as kidneys, nervous tissue and brains) of the local associations.

In extremis, it is always possible for parties to disassociate themselves from that kind of core support. But it is very difficult and painful, as Labour demonstrated during the coalminers' strike.

Tactically, Labour is trying to ensure that the Tories stick by their farming friends at the possible expense of the rest of us. After all, Tony Blair leads one of the most urban parties in Europe. He can count. And the Conservatives are tumbling straight into the trap. Politically, they haven't thought this through. For once they are behaving with a woeful lack of cynicism and ruthlessness.

For, of all the ways in which the BSE crisis can hurt the Conservatives, this is the most dangerous. The financial cost of widespread destruction of cows can always be funded; the effect on social security and national growth would be bad, but not necessarily terminal.

But the idea that the Tories are more worried about the price of beef, farming incomes and the survival of a strong exporting business than the possibility of people dying from avoidable brain disease, is politically lethal. It is only one more example, though a dramatic one, of the central message that Labour is trying to broadcast: the Government is on the side of vested interests, not the common good. Suburban Tory MPs know this and are, in private, very worried.

Rightly: these are crucial months for the Conservatives. There had been the beginnings of political recovery sighted in the bowels of polling statistics and local council by-elections. Money was coming into the economy from maturing Tessa accounts and building society mergers, with the promise of Budget largesse to come. The Conservative press was returning to the fold.

What the Government badly needed was a slow build-up of support into the summer. What they badly didn't need was the discovery by some scientists in Edinburgh of strange, floral designs in the brains of dead teenagers.

But they got it. Increasingly, to govern is to react, as well as to choose. In this case, ministers have chosen wrongly. Because of their connection with farming and the food lobby, they were never going to be an effective source of public reassurance where scientists were divided.

Politically, the reaction would have been better had Dorrell invited those scientists and farmers formerly derided as scaremongers to join his committees; and said some brutal things about being uninterested in the economics of the farming crisis; and concluded that, however remote the risk, he wouldn't advise children to eat hamburgers. But the overall tone of yesterday's statements was, once again, a quavering appeal for calm. I have a feeling that this is going to turn out almost as badly for Conservatives as for cows.

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