The Real Lessons of Blair's War of Words; Spin Is to Tony Blair What Sleaze Was to John Major - the Single Perception Most Damaging to Their Standing

Article excerpt

Byline: ANNE MCELVOY

THE War of the Queen Mother's funeral is over, the battlefield strewn.

A truce has been called, though pockets of guerrilla activity remain. Tony Blair is a shaken field marshal, General Campbell, heavily wounded, clings stubbornly to life. All around lie lieutenants of varying usefulness. Peter Mandelson, that trusty old war horse, arrived late to the fray, claiming that the casus belli was people who "couldn't forgive Labour for winning two historic landslides" and were out to "ambush" Mr Blair.

What's new? Mr Mandelson knows well that all this is part of the rough and tumble of politics. It is the disappointment and unease of the many people who did welcome Labour's historic two terms, and want them to be remembered for rather more than rows about spin, that he should be worrying about.

Spin is to Tony Blair what sleaze was to John Major: the single adverse perception which has the most damaging effect on their standing.

Mr Blair is incensed by the dominance of discussion of spin when he would rather be heard on 100 other issues, Mr Major was similarly infuriated by the excessive attention (as he saw it) paid to graft among Conservatives.

Jonathan Aitken's bills at the Ritz in Paris, cash for questions, Neil Hamiliton's inventive financial stratagems - none of these made a blind bit of difference to the priorities of voters.

Nonetheless, sleaze came to matter so much that it was a major factor in Mr Major's heavy defeat. Hywel Williams, the irreverent Tory Boswell of these years, recalls in his account Guilty Men that Labour's sleaze campaign was "the most brilliantly sustained onslaught by an opposition on government in British political history".

Labour's incredulous rage at being subjected to a fraction of the same concerted criticism today reminds us that the taste which politicians like least is that of their own medicine.

NOW that Downing Street has wisely, if belatedly, declared an end to hostilities with Black Rod, Mr Blair must grasp the significance of what has happened. He must be more careful in future not to allow his personal credibility to be undermined by trivial misjudgments which have a nasty habit of blowing up into something far worse. It would certainly help if he were to adopt the recommendations of the civil service commissioner, Baroness Prashar, that special advisers, even those as elevated as Mr Campbell or Jonathan Powell in Downing Street, should not to be empowered to give instructions to civil servants.

Beyond this, Mr Blair must resist the temptation to believe that what we have witnessed was all the fault of a hostile media. With the synchronisation of well trained dolphins, the entire Labour political class seems to have discovered that a slumped trust-rating for Mr Blair is matched by equally low esteem for the tabloid press.

Pursuing that comparison too hopefully is a mug's game.

Readers of a newspaper, if they find they do not trust it, have two courses: they can switch newspapers, or they can keep reading the same paper because they value other things about it more than absolute reliability.

When the public discovers that it distrusts a government, a different sequence follows. …