Oh, No, Not Another Relaunch!
Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
How did the government ever allow the word "relaunch" to enter the media bloodstream? The word recalls the Major regime, which was for ever on the verge of collapse, picking up the pieces and starting all over again.
On countless occasions Major's latest spin-doctor, visibly ageing in front of our eyes, would hold a briefing session in advance of a prime ministerial speech and declare unconvincingly that "the relaunch starts here". Accompanying the briefings would be a long list of initiatives, or rather a restatement of existing policies, to demonstrate that the government was getting on with the business of policy-making. The gap between relaunches was often a matter of mere weeks as the light dimmed on a long era of Tory government.
No minister or government spin-doctor has uttered the dreaded word this week. Indeed, as part of the relaunch the Great Enforcer, Jack Cunningham, has been touring the studios stating that it is no such thing. But the choreography is remarkably similar to Major's final years. Further, this government's superiority at the choreography of politics has only served to make the exercise seem even more staged and desperate. Wherever we look, there is an eager minister re-announcing policies in Commons statements, speeches or press conferences. Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, the government gives the impression of being busier than it really is.
While a "relaunch" carries with it eerie echoes from the recent past, the political context is entirely different. Major had every reason to feel desperate, as his party tore itself apart and his majority dwindled through by-election calamities and defections. So why did a much fresher government with such a big majority and no credible opposition feel obliged to put on a similar show?
The answer seems clear. Ministers wished to "draw a line under recent events", to resuscitate another cliche from the Major years. Focus on what we are doing, ministers declaimed, rather than on whether Charlie Whelan is going to take a job with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (as a fellow Spurs supporter, I offer to be Whelan's spin-doctor if he does).
On one level, ministers are right. Anyone reading the newspapers over the past few weeks would assume the government (landslide majority and miles ahead in the polls) was on the verge of collapse. Political journalists became addicted to the high theatre of political infighting during the Major years; now we, and perhaps our readers, cannot do without our regular fix and, it has to be said, the mutual hatreds at some levels of this government give us plenty of material.
So Whelan has become better known than most cabinet ministers. Peter Mandelson has entered an orbit of fame that some of his allies believe will preclude a return to mundane matters such as running the country. We know more about Cook's sexual misdemeanours than about his ethical foreign policy (or rather the ethical dimension to his policy, since he told me recently that he had never announced an "ethical foreign policy"). …