The well of cynicism runs dry

We had almost forgotten what politics is for ... it is there to change things
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The Independent Online
Before the election, Tony Blair dismissed talk of a "first hundred days" of frantic activity by which his administration could be judged. Natural caution, no doubt: but the first hundred-plus hours have been extraordinary enough. Whatever disappointments lie ahead, no one can now say that Labour has come into government without the ideas or energy needed for success.

Among the welter of interviews, promises, bills being prepared and appointments announced, there is already a theme emerging. It could be called the politics of executive power. A disciplined centralism not seen in Whitehall outside wartime is briskly unveiled. New Labour MPs, with freshly crumpled Underground maps to hand, are ordered to abstain from strong drink, sexual congress and political talk of all kinds.

The key promises of the manifesto are quickly prioritised. Bills are ordered up with a sense of urgency we haven't seen for years. Knuckle- cracking civil servants, grinning with trepidation, are told what is what; and find their new masters more forceful and confident than they'd expected.

The Governor of the Bank of England is bundled early out of bed and frogmarched by a team of beetle-browed former journalists from the Financial Times to be handed Britain's interest rate policy by Gordon Brown. Across the Channel, meanwhile, Robin Cook is kissed, despite his bristles, by numerous smooth Frenchmen and then heartily palpated by Germans.

Press officers in departments across London are told to clear every announcement with Alastair Campbell. Journalists are warned that the days of basted quails and lemony Sancerre with young ministers are over. A V-formation of despatch riders roars down the Mall to inform the Queen that, from now on, permission to leave her private apartments will have to be obtained in writing from the office of Peter Mandelson.

Well, I exaggerate a little. But the self-confidence and purposefulness of the New Labour leadership is remarkable, surprising and admirable.

Of the changed ministerial briefs, most are encouraging. For example, Donald Dewar is the right man to carry forward Scottish devolution and Nick Brown will make a formidable Chief Whip, with just the right mix of geniality and brutality. Though Chris Smith will be disappointed not be given Health, he is the right man for the Department of National Heritage - which he should quickly rename the Ministry of Culture - and has a very good team there. They can make more of a difference to the country's mood than perhaps they yet realise. Overall, my impression is of a Government which is less doughy and more interesting than we could have hoped for.

Things will not carry on as blithely as this. Events and political entropy will take their toll. It may be sensible, but I do not believe the control being attempted by Number 10 will be sustainable. It isn't compatible with Parliamentary politics; Government is too big, and there are too many big egos involved. More important are the big political and even philosophical issues still to be resolved by New Labour. As hard choices are made, the coalition of assent created by Blair in opposition will begin to fracture. It will not be possible to carry through radical pensions reform without extra resources. It will not be possible to make enough of a difference in the Health Service or education without diverting funds or finding new money.

Yet any tax increases in the coming Budget, whether from council tax, VAT, allowances or inheritance tax, will anger parts of the Middle England New Labour has so assiduously wooed. Well, some enemies have to be made. Blair might reflect, perhaps, that he won his landslide more because the Tory voters stayed at home than because of an army of Home Counties converts; and that he will be forgiven some extra taxation - so long as it is not extreme - if he shows a clear sense of direction and political purpose. What is intolerable is squandered taxation.

On the other big choice confronting Labour, whether to be radical/reformist, or conservative/centralist, the early evidence is mixed. There are the already cited centralising tendencies inside Government. If those hardened into an obsessive "control freak" culture, then we could suddenly find Labour reneging on its commitment to reviving local democracy - or democracy generally. The Government could perfectly well have introduced a Freedom of Information Bill straight away; I will be uneasy until it does.

Against all that we must set the vigour and appetite for reform that is in the Queen's Speech list - including Scottish and Welsh devolution and the planned referendum on London government, as well as the freer financial regime for town halls. On balance I think we should be heartened by the Blairites' early moves on reform. Above all, there is an impatient energy coursing through Westminster that hasn't been there since the heyday of Thatcherism. We had almost forgotten what politics is for - not for internalised party vendettas, or colloquies on the nature of sovereignty, or TV soap opera, or even to provide the raw material for show-off journalism. It is there to change things. And maybe it will: lowering my bucket over the past few days, I've discovered that my well of cynicism isn't quite as fetid and bottomless as I'd thought.

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