McTernan on Politics

This summer there has been no let-up for the Labour government
with the Hutton Inquiry dominating the headlines. But despite this
absorbing a lot of No 10’s energy, behind the scenes the prime
minister’s closest advisers have been thinking deeply about the
future. It is not simply that the Kelly affair has forced thoughts
of a “relaunch” – that will never explicitly be done because all
experienced politicos know that this is a political manoeuvre which
is doomed to failure.

Instead of relaunch what is being focused on is renewal. Study
of governments which have successfully moved from second into third
terms – from FDR to Thatcher – has led Blair’s team to argue that
renewal has four critical success factors: new people, new
policies, new forms of communication and a new narrative are all
required. Think of Thatcher’s second term where she brought new
talent into her Cabinet, developed the policy of privatisation
which liberated many companies from the dead hand of government
management, used innovative advertising to create a new and broad
base for share ownership and spoke to the newly prosperous working
classes. Looked at in this light the challenge facing Labour’s
leadership is no easier but it is somewhat clearer.

The need for new faces at the top table has been starkly
illuminated not just by the most recent reshuffle, but also by the
changes forced on the prime minister by the resignation of five
Cabinet ministers within the space of a year. The loss of Milburn,
Byers, Denham and Morris from ministerial positions has severely
depleted the cohort of able, ambitious forty-somethings who should
be providing the intellectual stimulus for the third term. If Hoon
falls as a result of the Hutton Inquiry it will be a clean sweep.
Blair will be left with a Cabinet in which the strength will be
Kinnockites – John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke, all
veterans of the 1980s. The focus of thinking for the future now
falls on a younger group of thirty-something junior ministers such
as the highly rated Douglas Alexander and David Miliband and their
equally impressive, if less well known colleagues Hilary Benn and
Ruth Kelly.

The reality is that they still need time to grow in office so
the focus for the short to medium term is going to be on the tone,
style and approach of the government.

The collapse in the number of voters who trust Blair has shaken
No 10 and the prime minister has been stung personally by the
attacks on his integrity. Look forward to new language – embodying
greater humility – being used at the Labour’s Party conference this
autumn. That will be the beginning of the fight-back that Blair
believes will lead to a revitalised government – and in due course
a renewed electoral mandate.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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