Magazine article The Spectator

Ten Weeks When a Hypocritical Government Will Meet a Cynical Electorate

Magazine article The Spectator

Ten Weeks When a Hypocritical Government Will Meet a Cynical Electorate

Article excerpt

There is a mood of hiatus around Westminster, with a certain grumpy unclearing of desks; an uncertainty as to whether to pretend that normal service has been resumed, or to acknowledge that we are now in a ten-- week election. `How do we keep this up for ten weeks without boring everyone rigid?' Labourites will enquire. But there is also an all-party question, addressing itself to the palliative of an unexpected Easter holiday: `Know any good hotels in Madrid?'

Mr Blair and Mr Hague both have tactical problems. The PM has committed himself to taking charge of foot-and-mouth, so he cannot allow his preoccupation with focus groups to become visible outside No. 10. Labour has a further difficulty. Throughout recent weeks, a cornucopia of announcements flooded out of Downing Street. New initiatives were promised on widows, orphans, grannies, the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind: anyone you can think of. The British people were assured that they were the happiest of all electorates, presided over by the most successful of all governments, ruled by the most benign of all Prime Ministers. Yet no one noticed. The press releases became so much kindling for the animals' funeral pyres.

But there is a solution, which has already occurred to Alastair Campbell. From Easter onwards, the announcements will simply be re-announced. The BBC and the Murdoch press can be trusted to treat them all as if they were fresh information.

The Tories have graver difficulties, including a triple problem over foot-and-mouth. They know that unless the epidemic breaks out from all attempts to control it, media interest is bound to decline. They are aware that they will have to move on to other issues, without allowing the Prime Minister to wriggle away from his foot-and-mouth responsibilities. They also know that despite good performances from William Hague and Tim Yeo, their standing in the polls has hardly improved.

From the earliest stages of this crisis, and despite the government's weight of official resources, the Tory front bench has been much more alert to what was happening in the countryside; much quicker to devise practical solutions. For about five minutes, Nick Brown did seem to be equal to the situation, but he was then reminded of his real responsibilities. He was not meant to act decisively, but to spin down the whole affair in order to keep 3 May on track and to keep his own job, as a reward. Faced with a choice between doing his duty or acting as the PM's dogsbody, Mr Brown revealed himself to have the soul of a stooge.

Mr Hague did rise to the level of events. He was right to call for the army to be put in charge, despite Brigadier Birtwistle's comments. The Brigadier is a serving officer. So what was he supposed to say? `Hague's damn right. Those penpushers in Maff are useless; we should have been running the show a month ago.' That is not how British soldiers talk when they are called to the aid of the civil power. But if the Brigadier did think that the Ministry of Agriculture ought to be left in charge, he would be a unique figure. He would be the only person in the entire country - including the PM - who believed that Maff should be in control, and who was not drawing a salary from that Ministry.

But the Tories' frustration with foot-and-- mouth predates Brigadier Birtwistle's intervention. They know that they have been right, but where is the credit? They also know that a succession of ministers have been caught out in the wrong, but where is the discredit? …

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