Magazine article The Spectator

Blair's Duplicity May Be Deliberate, or He May Just Change His Mind a Lot

Magazine article The Spectator

Blair's Duplicity May Be Deliberate, or He May Just Change His Mind a Lot

Article excerpt

Very few political decisions achieve nothing but good: one of them was the abolition of exchange controls exactly 25 years ago. This week the Adam Smith Institute rightly marked the anniversary with a dinner at the St Ermin's hotel. Geoffrey Howe, the chancellor who masterminded the stroke, reflected on how monumental the judgment - so obvious in retrospect appeared at the time. Lord Howe revealed that it was the only occasion in his career that he lost sleep on account of a policy decision, while Margaret Thatcher was all but overcome by last-minute nerves. Nigel Lawson, financial secretary in 1979, used the event to muse on how political judgments are reached. 'It was a leap in the dark,' he remembered. 'We knew that if we had waited for a consensus, nothing would have happened. We had to make the decision, and then build a new consensus around it.'

I reflected on Lord Lawson's remarks after watching poor Tony Blair duck question after question at his monthly Downing Street press conference on Monday. This was a badly attended affair, only called at the last moment, and a fractious Prime Minister had little to say. Even his jokes failed to come off. His government now operates along exactly opposite lines to the classic account formulated by Lord Lawson at the St Ermin's hotel. Blair consults his focus groups, tries to build his consensus, and then makes his leap in the dark.

In the early days, it was not like this. The Blair government was indeed capable of bold strokes, of which granting independence to the Bank of England was the most notable. Admittedly that was Gordon Brown's, and emphatically not Tony Blair's, achievement. But seven years ago even Tony Blair's more emollient means of decision-making often worked. Because everyone so desperately willed him on to succeed, he could sometimes pull off miracles. But today this magic has vanished. When the Prime Minister tries to build coalitions, he creates rifts. When he tries to move forward, he engenders only resistance.

A wide gap has opened up between what Tony Blair says and what he means. The gambling Bill, which only two weeks ago seemed set to meander serenely through Parliament, is a case in point. At Monday's press conference Tony Blair was all square behind the sensible and long-delayed plan to allow more casinos in Britain's cities, and open up to the masses the private pleasures of the elite. But immediately the conference was over, the government briefing machine set to work, telling friendly lobby correspondents that the Prime Minister hadn't really meant a word he said, and that the government was set upon climb-down.

The Home Secretary's decision, formalised on Monday, to abandon Britain's veto on asylum and immigration to Brussels is another example. There is doubtless something to be said for this concession, which brings Britain into line with the rest of the European Union. If so, ministers did not try to make their case. Instead they denied that the surrender had been made, sticking as best they could to the line which Tony Blair propounded to David Frost last June, that Britain 'will have complete control over our asylum policies'.

The Prime Minister took cover behind exactly the same mendacity during last week's row over the future of the examination system. …

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