Peter Oborne

There are echoes everywhere of the final days of John Major’s government

There are echoes everywhere of the final days of John Major's government

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I was unable to cope when I joined the parliamentary lobby as a reporter for the London Evening Standard more than ten years ago. I faced two problems, both of them disastrous. The first was that I did not know how to recognise a political story. A grand set-piece – the sacking of a minister, or the fall of a government – was obvious enough to anyone. But the kind of event that fills the newspapers on a daily basis appeared to me arbitrary, governed by laws that I could not fathom. The second problem was even worse. Once a story had been drawn to my attention, I did not know how to write it.

It was a bad time. I acquired a haunted look, lost more than a stone in weight and daily expected to be dismissed by the editor of the Evening Standard, to me at least a remote and ferocious figure. Late one evening I humbly approached a senior member of the lobby for advice. 'You have to bear one thing in mind, lad,' the old-timer told me. 'The reader does not want to look at the story at all. He is heading straight to the theatre listings or the sports pages. Your job is to arrest his attention before he gets there.

'A political story,' he explained, 'is essentially composed of two elements. Something happens – a speech, a piece of economic news, a throwaway remark by a Cabinet minister, a resignation. But these events, by themselves, have no meaning. They have to be connected with a wider pattern.

'Thus an article that starts off "The rate of inflation rose by x per cent last night", while accurate so far as it goes, is unlikely to hold the reader's attention for long. A story that begins "The government was plunged into economic crisis last night as the rate of inflation leapt by a shock x per cent" has a greater chance of success.'

From that moment my fortunes started to improve. This was the early 1990s, and John Major's government was in the process of establishing its reputation for sleaze, incompetence and indiscipline. Soon a structure was in place which transformed minor and often innocent transgressions by government ministers into blazing front-page stories. Coveted space on the front page could be obtained by the simple expedient of beginning with the phrase 'John Major faced a fresh sleaze crisis last night as ...' . The same magic was capable of converting remarks by obscure Tory backbenchers into a nutritious page-one splash, usually kicking off with something like: 'The Tory party broke wide open over Europe last night as...'. These admittedly mechanical routines went on bearing fruit till the government of John Major was finally put out of its misery in the 1997 general election.

The by no means negligible achievement by the Downing Street director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has been to prevent the same syndrome emerging under New Labour. Tony Blair's government is every bit as 'sleazy' and incompetent as John Major's – in truth, very much more so. Campbell has used his art to ensure that the numerous Labour corruption stories have been treated as discrete events, not part of a vicious, self-fulfilling pattern. The methods used – manipulation of the news agenda, creation of a claque of friendly journalists, the use of access as a means of control, above all an unspoken deal with News International – are neither heart-warming nor attractive. But they have been undeniably effective. Bad stories about New Labour have found it hard to get off the ground because Fleet Street has been unable or unwilling to place them in a broader context.

That is why the events of the last few weeks are so dangerous for the New Labour project. The government is beginning to establish a pattern of behaviour. Cases of incompetence and mendacity can no longer be readily dismissed as aberrant phenomena. This week has been full of echoes of the final days of the John Major government. On Tuesday the Prime Minister was unable to prevent a speech restating New Labour values being billed in advance as an attempt to relaunch his tired and lacklustre administration. This latest example of Blairite oratory was a moving affair, made in front of the Fabian Society at the Old Vic, the audience full of balding young men with black-rimmed glasses looking sternly ahead, older men with crumpled suits and beards, and formidable left-wing matrons. These were the people who formed an alternative governing class throughout the Thatcher epoch, and thought they had come into their own in 1997. Now they sit on quangos, advise government committees, and support progressive causes. They received Tony Blair warmly, then sat meekly through his plaintive speech, which was as intellectually feeble as anything John Major ever produced. It is hard to judge whether or not Downing Street ever entertained the hope that Blair's effort, which implausibly blamed the Tories for Labour's lack of achievement, would inject urgency and passion. Instead, as with the later speeches of poor John Major, the wrong message went out. Downing Street may have wanted the word to spread that the Prime Minister had appealed to Labour heartlands. The press mercilessly, though not without justice, interpreted this olive branch to traditional Labour as an attack on the middle classes.

As with John Major, the attempt to set the political agenda was derailed by events offstage. The headlines were seized instead by the devastating claims made by the former Cabinet ministers Clare Short and Robin Cook about the handling of intelligence material by government spokesmen ahead of the Iraq war. On Wednesday the Prime Minister was humiliatingly called to the Commons to account for last Thursday's government reshuffle – an occasion of legendary ineptitude.

Long before its end, the Major government was doomed. There was nothing it could do and nowhere it could go. Tony Blair by contrast is nowhere near beyond redemption. The curious thing about the failure of confidence and nerve in Downing Street is that it is entirely self-generated. The economy, though fragile, has not turned sour. The government majority remains large, and the opposition weak. The Prime Minister is like a batsman on a perfect wicket, on a blazing hot day, in front of a friendly crowd, facing a lousy attack, who nevertheless contrives to play a series of false strokes. There is an opportunity for the Tories here, though it remains to be seen whether they can consistently pitch the ball in the right place.

This weekend I am off on sabbatical, to write a biography of my lifelong hero Basil D'Oliveira, the majestic Cape Coloured cricketer who escaped apartheid to play for England, provoking the crisis of 1968 which led to the severing of sporting links with South Africa. (I would be thrilled if any readers with memories of or information about Basil got in touch with me at peter.oborne@btinternet.com.) By the time I return in the autumn, it is far from impossible that the Conservative party will find itself ahead in the polls, a state of affairs that has not occurred for any meaningful period of time since John Major's government was establishing its reputation for sleaze, incompetence and indiscipline in the early 1990s.