This could turn into the honeymoon of the century

Alan Watkins on politics
Click to follow
The question I am asked most often these days is how long Mr Tony Blair's honeymoon will last. I reply: two years. For that is the period of popular acclaim, shading into public toleration, which our prime ministers have recently enjoyed: Harold Wilson in 1964-66, Edward Heath in1970-72, James Callaghan in 1976-78 and John Major in 1990-92.

Lord Callaghan is an apparent exception because his premiership started with the IMF crisis. But both during and after it he was popularly regarded as a decent cove (an over-simplified view of Jim's character, though that is by the way). If he had taken on Lady Thatcher in autumn 1978 rather than waited for the disasters of 1978-79, he might well have won.

She herself is not so much an apparent as a real exception, for in no time at all she was the most unpopular prime minister in polling memory. But in accordance with the fashion at the time, her honeymoon was postponed, in her case until 1983, after which it lasted five years rather then two, and then it was downhill all the way to the divorce court.

By contrast Mr Blair is the most popular prime minister in history. And there is no doubt about it: people do seem to be more cheerful. It may be the weather or the unexpected success of our various sporting teams lately. Or it may be Mr Blair. Who knows? One of Mr Neal Ascherson's wishes may even be gratified, and people will once again start whistling while they work.

Naturally this optimistic mood is reflected on television and in the papers. They do not want to seem out of tune with their viewers or readers. There is also a sort of journalist who is attracted by power and its appurtenances, likes being summoned to No 10 to give advice and proceeds to attack the occupant if that flattering invitation is not forthcoming. I am not like this - never have been - believing with Blake that

"The strongest poison ever known

Came from Caesar's laurel crown."

I am not saying this is the only possible stand to take. No doubt governments need to be understood, the problems of public administration appreciated. The Conservative political historian Mr Maurice Cowling is fond of remarking that we hear far too much about liberty and not nearly enough about authority. Here, by the way, is a footnote to the present controversy about special advisers and whether Mr Blair is packing No 10 with apparatchiks. My position is that if Lady Thatcher could enjoy the aid and comfort of Sir Charles Powell, Mr Blair should be able to receive similar support from his brother Jonathan, irrespective of distinctions without a difference in their Downing Street titles.

Several friends or acquaintances in journalism have become special advisers and returned to their trade. Sir Samuel Brittan was at George Brown's Department of Economic Affairs. Mr David Lipsey was a special adviser to Anthony Crosland. Mr Ferdinand Mount was head of Lady Thatcher's policy unit. The late Peter Jenkins, however, did not become a special adviser to Lord Owen at the Foreign Office, as he had hoped, because the diplomats dissented and placed obstacles in the path.

My relationship with all these remained, I think, unaffected. Indeed, I learnt subsequently that Mr Mount was disappointed because, out of a misplaced sense of delicacy, I carefully refrained from asking him about the goings-on in Old Mother Thatcher's abode. But the life of special advising would not be for me, even if I were more cut out for it by nature. I think journalists should be against the government.

There is not much sign of this at the moment. Take the rows in France and Germany about the single European currency. There is no doubt Mr Blair and Mr Robin Cook have been lucky, in that the decision has been made for them without their having to lift a finger or trouble a single speechwriter. It is, certainly, a decision they will have to make at some time. But the hour has been put off, like an appointment with a nervous patient which, to the patient's relief, the dentist has had to cancel because he has made a muddle in his diary.

If Mr Blair and Mr Cook have enjoyed good luck, it is because they have earned it, by being sensible and refusing to commit themselves. And yet Mr Major did exactly the same. He too adopted H H Asquith's phrase: wait and see. The difference was that he could not control his party as Mr Blair controlled his and as the Labour leader still does. Indeed, it can only be a question of time until Mr Blair emulates the late J V Stalin and has the first person detected sitting down after the standing ovation taken outside and shot.

Mr Major said entirely reasonably that it did not now look as if this country would join a single currency, not at any rate in its first creation. All the television news bulletins I watched, and many of the newspapers I read, then came out with the routine devised by Mr Alastair Campbell after Busby Berkeley: ah, but that was not what Mr Major said before or during the election. I am sorry to spoil Mr Campbell's choreography. But this is precisely what Mr Major did say: that we could not commit ourselves until the circumstances became clearer. If they have not become clearer exactly - for if anything the European waters are even muddier then they were - a single currency is still less likely to start on time than it was before 1 May.

This indulgent attitude towards the Government, giving it the benefit of every doubt, is likely to persist for about two years. The period, however, may be shorter. Mr Blair's principal failing has already become apparent, though it was evident enough long before 1 May. It is a mental muzziness, a reliance on Wordzak, a disinclination to take clear decisions.

Nothing illustrates this better then the Government's prim attitude towards the National Lottery: willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike. There is nothing wrong with such a competition. We should have had one years ago. The prizes may be excessive. I should have thought most people would be happy with a couple of million. But if the working classes choose to chuck away their hard-earned cash, that is their affair. It is fatuous to describe their voluntary contributions as "taxation".

There are two things wrong with the lottery. One is that it is run by a private company rather then, as it is everywhere else, by a government agency or directly by a department. The other is that the proceeds do not go directly to the Treasury, to be spent on useful objects such as kidney machines, teachers or nuclear submarines, but are disbursed instead by unelected committees acting on arbitrary principles to a variety of "good causes" which, when they are not bizarre, are positively disreputable. An example of the latter is the "purchase" of the Churchill papers, most of which were the property of the state already, for pounds 12.5 million.

Instead of undertaking some principled reform Mr Chris Smith, as Mr Blair's representative, puts on a performance worthy of Dickens's Uriah Heep or, perhaps, of Trollope's Reverend Obadiah Slope. Mr Blair accepts - even welcomes - privatisation but refuses to accept its consequences and delivers moral lectures instead. We shall see many more such performances, I am afraid, before Mr Blair's honeymoon is over.