Leading Article: A hard lesson in the reality of government. Now learn it

Click to follow
The Independent Online
We can safely declare New Labour's honeymoon over. It couldn't have continued for ever, of course, but the manner of its ending is interesting and should worry Tony Blair. Derision about the Formula One affair is widespread and justified. The blame can be levelled nowhere except Number 10. Had the Conservatives not been up to their nostrils in worse problems before the election, and therefore an implausible prosecution team now, the damage to the new Government would have been worse. But as it is, William Hague had his best day at the despatch box yet and made some telling points at the Prime Minister's expense. So what went wrong and what can be done?

Let us deal first with the main Tory attack on Blair - that he is an unprincipled opportunist reneging on promise after promise. This has some ``political truth'' - meaning that it will stick. There have been U-turns since 1 May, and some maladroit handling of tricky issues. Given that Labour was out of power for so long, arriving in power with so many high hopes and so many inexperienced people, it is hardly surprising. But the U-turns have not (yet) been highly significant in policy terms. On the big questions of educational and political reform, Europe and the welfare state, Mr Blair seems to be sticking to his guns. If he delivers there, then none of the rest of this will matter. It is small stuff. Mr Hague is making a serious mistake in portraying the Prime Minister as the cynical boss of a government of tricksters. It seems implausible and therefore irrelevant, and won't help the Tories. Most ministers, including Tessa Jowell, are people of honest conviction trying to improve the country. They make mistakes; and the world is a little more complicated, perhaps, than it seemed in Opposition; and it is the duty of the Conservatives to point this out. But we are not governed by charlatans.

All that said, there are contradictions in New Labour which the Ecclestone affair exposes. In zooming away from Old Labour dislike of entrepreneurs and business, the party's leading reformers have gone too far the other way. From being people who could do no right, the glitzier tycoons have become people who can do no wrong. It started, no doubt, as a shrewd opposition strategy. Mr Blair's friendship with the big cats of corporate Britain was used to demonstrate to the voters that the party really was pro-enterprise. After 18 years in the wilderness, it really was necessary to show people that Labour wasn't simply an eternal pressure group. So the successful stars of the private sector found themselves back-slapped, courted, flattered and consulted. Some, seeing the way the wind was blowing, gave Labour money. The circle of ``Tony's friends'' would always widen, it seemed, for a successful business supporter.

Nothing wrong, perhaps, in that, except that the Government seemed to forget that most business leaders are also lobbyists, responsible to shareholders and looking for opportunities. They may be privately chuffed to meet the Prime Minister and they may be privately keen on a pro-capitalist alternative to the Conservatives, particularly after their anti-European turn. But they are not rootless philanthropists, keen to do a guy a good turn and hand over cash just for the sake of it. They know that political donations buy access, and the chance to put one's case in a friendly atmosphere to the people who count - while a rival (in this case a rival sporting industry) doesn't. That was what happened under the Conservatives, and what happened here. New Labour was elected to govern for all of us. It needs to recognise that entrepreneurs and business leaders are not gurus or miracle workers but focused financial performers with their own agenda - people who are experienced about money and power. Government should treat them politely, cautiously, respectfully - but ultimately, no differently to society's other voices. Under the Conservatives, ministers' long-standing personal friendships with merchant banks, some industrialists and a few corporate buccaneers meant that the private and public sectors became too hotly intertwined. It mustn't happen again. It is not possible both to have corporate chums, who pay money to your party; and to be a genuinely reformist government, opening the country up to more of its people.

Some of the reforms now being put forward, including capping political spending and publishing lists of all substantial party donors, are very welcome. But it shouldn't have needed the Ecclestone embarrassment to get Labour moving. When Mr Blair was elected, he raised our hopes about a genuinely fresh start for British politics. This is a country that has been disappointed so many times before that a particular weight rests on his shoulders: if he lets people down, they will turn away from politics with disgust. So forget the Commons row, or what one minister or another thinks - what the Prime Minister needs to know is that many of his natural supporters have been jolted, dismayed and annoyed.

Comments