Tony's 10-point plan to be the hero of the hour

By Alice Thomson
(Filed: 29/11/2002)

Gordon Brown reminds me of the Samburu tribesmen who were given a £4 million windfall recently by the British. They were advised to spend the money wisely. Instead they rushed round buying cars, new shoes, prostitutes and beer. You just knew it was going to end in tears.

But when Mr Brown is down, Tony Blair is up. The Prime Minister thrives on a crisis. He has devised a whole new way of dealing with them. From the fuel debacle to the foot and mouth epidemic and now the firemen's strike, he has developed a 10-point plan.

1) Never, ever prepare. This is vital. You must be caught on the hop, to give the crisis time to get going. It should threaten to overwhelm the country, so that you can appear the hero. This has applied to every disaster so far. The petrol tax rebels brought garage forecourts to a standstill before the Government did anything. Mr Blair knew about the firemen's strike this summer, yet he refused to update the Green Goddesses.

Don't read any document that may help, such as the Duke of Northumberland's report into the last foot and mouth crisis, which advocated vaccination. The Government hasn't bothered to look at reports into the fire service since the 1977 strike.

Seven years ago, the Audit Commission produced In the Line Of Fire, which suggested that modernisation could cut deaths and injuries by half. Roger King, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, wrote to Mr Blair a month before the fuel protest, warning that hauliers were planning blockades. But you don't want any solutions yet.

2) Call in the Army. They're not allowed to whinge when you cancel their leave to man the pumps, burn the animals or drive the oil tankers. Nor, if you're careful, will they be able to gain the credit. They must not become the heroes; they are stagehands.

Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle, who was in charge of foot and mouth in Cumbria, was asked to break off his work to find a venue for Mr Blair's photocall. But he was an anomaly, becoming a folk hero for his battleplan drawn up on the back of a cigarette packet. The Government has privately made it clear to the Army that this must not happen again over the firemen's strike.

3) Put an inept junior in charge, preferably John Prescott. He can be relied on to mess it up, even better if he is woken in the night and is incoherent. The then agriculture minister, Nick Brown, was the fall guy over foot and mouth; he was demoted at the next reshuffle and his ministry was culled. They need to stoke the crisis until it's really hot and the tabloids can run headlines saying, "Britain's Burning", with suitable pictures of houses or cattle on fire.

4) Leave the country. This time Mr Blair went to a Nato summit in Prague. During the foot and mouth crisis, he went to Camp David for a meeting with President Bush. This reminds people that you are an international statesman.

5) Return home exasperated. "Nothing has been achieved in my absence. My poor people are suffering; I must do something." This leads to his favourite pronouncement.

6) I'm taking personal charge. We have heard this over the euro, foot and mouth, NHS waiting lists, Ulster and trains.

7) Invoke Margaret Thatcher or, even better, Churchill. You are a great leader both in peace and at war. You will take on the enemy.

8) Start rubbishing the enemy. This should happen quite late in the day for maximum impact, through helpful newspapers. The public needs to know stories about farmers infecting their own sheep to win compensation (even if they may not be entirely true).

They should be told that the Paddington rail crash survivors are politically motivated and that old ladies, such as Rose Addis, who complain about NHS treatment, are racists. They will be horrified to learn that British firemen earn more than the French while regularly moonlighting as taxi drivers, or that the Army can do their job with far fewer men.

9) Appoint a scapegoat. This could be a tsar such as Keith Hellawell over drugs, an expendable minister such as Mo Mowlam over Northern Ireland, a chief inspector such as Chris Woodhead over education, or, after the A-level chaos, Sir William Stubbs. Remember the British Airways boss, Bob Ayling, who was dumped with the Dome.

During the foot and mouth crisis, even the local Chinese restaurant was blamed because it might have imported illegal meat that found its way into pig swill. In the fire dispute, council chiefs have taken the rap. Meanwhile, Mr Blair avoids responsibility and moves on to new headlines, preferably a war abroad.

10) Refuse to hold a public inquiry. Nobody must know how much money the country has lost through each debacle or how easily the Government caved in. The foot and mouth crisis cost £3 billion and 10 million animals. The firemen's strike could cost even more if everyone in the public sector insists on 16 per cent pay increases.

This 10-point plan works every time. The public looks at the rabble surrounding each crisis and thinks: "Thank God for Mr Blair, he's doing his best to sort it out."

The only people left feeling angry are the fuel protesters, the farmers, the firemen, the rail passengers and anyone who dares to take on the Prime Minister. Then, of course, there are the scapegoats who were sacked. They often feel somewhat bitter.

If enough people become disillusioned with their role as bit players in Mr Blair's heroic plot, they will start shouting. Ministers, such as Estelle Morris, have already had enough of the drama, and no longer want to play the baddy to Mr Blair's shining knight.

The Armed Forces have shown their reluctance to keep propping up the Prime Minister: last week, Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff, dared to suggest that the Army didn't have the time or resources to help out in yet another domestic crisis. Mr Blair was furious.

Crisis, what crisis? Jim Callaghan apocryphally said before the electorate voted Labour into opposition for 18 years. Bring me another crisis, says Mr Blair but we'd be more impressed if he didn't let it get that far.