The new season kicked off with an unwelcome pill for political reporters. As Parliament reassembled after its three months’ recess, lobby correspondents hiked across St James’s Park to the Foreign Press Association at 11 Carlton House Terrace. This fine Nash establishment, hard by the Turf Club, has been the disconcertingly grand London base for a collection of mainly down-at-heel foreign journalists. Now it has been rudely commandeered – in the face of ineffectual Foreign Office objections – as the headquarters for the daily Downing Street briefing operation.
The location emerged only recently. But the general arrangement, with television cameras present and non-lobby reporters admitted, was announced last summer. Cabinet ministers asserted that this new method of dealing with the press was a move towards frankness and transparency. The line was swallowed wholesale by the new school of unctuous, pro-government columnists with no hard-reporting experience, of which Mr David Aaronovitch of the Independent is merely an example.
In practice the new system has nothing to do with openness, and was never intended as such. It is about hiding the truth and controlling the press. Back in the late 1980s Neil Kinnock’s precocious adviser Peter Mandelson set out, with pleasing though uncharacteristic honesty, the long-term objective: ‘Of course we want to use the media, but the media will be our tools, our servants: we are no longer content to let them be our persecutors.’ This elegantly phrased prophecy is not far from coming true. Downing Street has now secured a more docile press corps than anything Thatcher dreamt of.
Over the summer Tony Blair talked of securing a ‘new settlement’ with the press. The new lobby system is a key ingredient. The Carlton House briefings are explicitly designed to prevent sustained questioning. The rigorous examination which brought to light Downing Street mendacity over Mittal, or panicked Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair over the Mandelson/Hinduja business, is now becoming impossible. Reporters get one crack of the whip, and the show moves on. Broadcasters are heavily favoured (the BBC was granted four questions on Monday) while the regional press are basically excluded. Ministers are now present, and on terms that suit the government. On Monday David Blunkett was on hand to promote government statistics, which showed an implausible 16 per cent fall in street crime. The following day the story was Estelle Morris and her A-levels shambles. But she was kept away. Meanwhile, invisible and behind the scenes, traffic between Downing Street and its favoured reporters and political editors is more intense and cosier than ever. The old lobby system, with its rough democracy, has been emasculated. It has been replaced by a White Commonwealth which is more shadowy, shameless and underhand than anything that went on under Harold Wilson: the antithesis of transparency.
All of this is, of course, legitimate. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are entitled at the very least to a grudging respect for achieving what all previous governments have tried, and always failed, to do. Political reporting in Britain has never been about the objective facts, such as they are. It has always been about the exercise of power. New Labour understands this Marxist point with wonderful clarity, and far better than its opponents.
This summer has seen a change in the architecture of British politics. The Blair leadership has entered a higher phase of something like mellow serenity. The Prime Minister is more at ease with himself. He long ago learnt to transcend the Labour party. Now there are hints that he can transcend British politics; an apotheosis that many prime ministers seek but few attain. It never beckoned for John Major; Margaret Thatcher experienced it fleetingly; Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson never. The Prime Minister’s novel sense of his own extraordinary position may explain the lucidity and courage which emanates from Downing Street this autumn.
Tony Blair’s leadership speech at Blackpool was a manifestation of the new mood. Profound questions may be resolved in the coming months – and not only the dark matter of Iraq and the Middle East. The Prime Minister is still promising a decision on the euro. His speech at the Labour conference, hailed by his allies as a ‘second clause four’, opened the way to a new language on public-sector reform. This new boldness across so many areas does indeed carry its risks. It could, just possibly, let the Tories back into mainstream politics.
Take the example of public services: the Prime Minister now admits that Labour was much too cautious in its first term. In Blackpool he talked about decentralisation, bringing in the private sector and giving choice to consumers of public services. He admits that centralised, monolithic giants like the NHS don’t work and that pouring in cash is not enough. By doing so, he has moved the terms of trade of the debate. It is now, for the first time in memory, in traditional Tory territory. Up to now every time a Conservative spokesman has come up with radical plans for health or education, Labour has made the charge of secret plans to ‘privatise’ the public services. That charge, which was always dishonourable and shoddy politics, simply cannot stick any more. Tony Blair has not merely legitimised that kind of talk; he has taken politics into areas where Conservatives are at ease and the Labour party uncomfortable and mutinous.
This is why Tony Blair’s awesome presence at the heart of British politics has given the Tories an opportunity: over public services, Iraq and maybe even the euro they can detach him from his own party. Whether they are up to the task is another matter, and it is wholly to the Prime Minister’s credit that he has given them the chance. Ministers are entitled to argue that the muzzling of the lobby has been accompanied by greater courage and a sort of moral candour from Downing Street. We will have to see how matters proceed, but on the face of things that is no bad exchange.