Another initiative? Don't make me laugh

MATTHEW PARRIS

It was deeply unfair. For Iain Duncan Smith to drag a sick old lady into the Commons chamber like that was heartless, tasteless, unjust, dishonest, destructive, demoralising ... and it worked. Last Wednesday was the making of the Tory leader, yet the truth is he wasnt brilliant; he just stuck to his guns while the Prime Minister made a fool of himself. Below the belt, yes. It is what Opposition leaders do and Tony Blair had better get used to it. These blows can be parried by silence, but as usual Blair just couldnt shut up. He is pathologically incapable of letting a critic have the last word. I watched as with furious spadework he dug at the hole he was standing in.

Tony Blairs communications team is capable of some magnificent constructions but there is one basic skill it has yet to master.

It has never got the hang of stone walls. This simple artefact was all the Prime Minister needed. All he had to do was say: Accounts differ, and this dispatch box is not the place to sort it out. Please tell your constituent I am distressed to hear of this dispute, and that the Health Secretary is looking into it. I hope Mrs Addis gets well soon.

MPs do actually know that ambushing Cabinet ministers with heart-rending cases is cheating. For a dignified reluctance to trade in such currency Blair would win respect. He preferred instead to try to blow Duncan Smith out of the water.

But what a crass attempt. The childlike faith that Blairs critics would not immediately smell a rat is hard to credit. This was the concluding paragraph from Professor Malone-Lees letter, read out by Blair.

Along with those we serve, we recognise the problems caused by years of underinvestment in the NHS. We welcome the fact that this is changing, but it will take time, commitment, optimism and imagination.

Assuming this really was the hospital professors unsolicited report (in a letter, remember, which was supposed to be about a clinical case), then the Prime Ministers red pen should have struck through it. Reason? It would read like a crude piece of new Labour propaganda.

And so it did. MPs just fell about laughing. Someone shouted: Did Alastair write that? Snakes alive, its not new Labours addiction to news management Im complaining about: its their addiction to bad news management. This is the kind of thing Idi Amin might have tried.

For is there not something Third World about modern British government? The abstract noun is king. Politicians strut around issuing empty threats and unlikely claims, making wild promises and spouting meaningless speeches, while the drains stink, the potholes in the roads grow, and down at the market the ordinary peasantry carry on their daily commerce placing not a jot of credence in anything the politicians say. A modern Evelyn Waugh would not need to take his novel to Africa to write Scoop.

My family lived in Jamaica in the early Seventies. The Prime Minister, Norman Shearer, was an amiable dullard. The leader of the Opposition, Michael Manley, was an unworldly firebrand. Many political rallies were held and fine speeches made, attended for their entertainment value, but crime soared, the economy drifted, public services rotted, and nothing was done. So regular was the promise of positive action that local comedians invented a new minister, the Minister of Positive Action, a national joke.

The most effective opposition came from a single, Bernard Levin-like columnist writing under the name of Cargill, whose column in the Daily Gleaner described how he cut up his telephone and sent the pieces in a box to the Jamaica Telephone Company, in protest at their appalling service.

Tony Blair has yet to appoint a Minister of Positive Action, but dont rule it out. He declares that from now on big new announcements will be made in Parliament, not the media. The declaration is made in the media. Big new announcements continue to be made there but we dont even comment because nobody believed him in the first place.

An Inquiry is set up into the future of the health service. Then, disregarding the Inquiry (assuming it even exists) the Health Secretary announces (in the media) that failing hospitals are to be handed over to private management. Should we be stunned? Im not even sure its going to happen.

Ten-year plans for transport are announced, forgotten, reannounced without a timescale. Statements about the billions of private investment transport is to attract are made  and comprehensively shredded by every City pundit who so much as bothered to respond. The Prime Minister appoints a buddy to sort out transport independently of the Transport Secretary.

Oh, and what happened to the Dome? Did they sell it? Would you necessarily believe them if they said they had? Nothing coheres at the centre of government. We do not have a Cabinet any longer. Ministers strike out in different directions, the Industry Secretary says the pound is greatly overvalued and the Bank of England says it isnt. Nobody bothers to reconcile contradictory official statements pinging around the newspapers. Secretaries of State are routinely reported to be incensed at states of affairs in their patches. Standards in schools examinations are lowered to improve results, until grades become so devalued that somebody suggests a new grade to be inserted above A.

An apparently deeply unmonarchist minister is put in charge of the Queens Golden Jubilee celebrations, probably by mistake. Whole stations are closed regularly at rush hour on the London Underground on account of passenger demand  too much of it. Rail strikes spread. Every now and again thousands of British troops are reported to be about to go into action in Afghanistan, but they never quite do.

I listened to the Health Secretary on the Today programme at the start of the week. Alan Milburn had been invited to discuss a directive issued by a Civil Service health chief in the South East telling staff the region was heading for an overspend and must make urgent cuts, no matter how painful. What, asked the interviewer, did Mr Milburn make of that? Oh, said the Secretary of State, no problem: they can get the shortfall from other regions which may be underspent. Thus in 30 seconds, to extricate himself from a temporary tight spot on the radio, a Health Secretary kicks away an entire financial discipline, undermines the woman tasked to enforce it, and cheats those regions which do succeed in keeping within their limits. After that interview, everyone in the health service will be taking their spending limits just a fraction less seriously.

This was not a big issue, but the careless way in which Milburn dispatched it shocked me. There is a sort of vandalism, a slash-and-burn mentality, as todays ministers pull pieces from the furniture of public administration  that delicate construct of trust, custom and practice, and understandings honourably observed  and throw them on the fire to help them through a chilly season.

Far more damage is being done by this Government to old certainties and reasonable expectations in public administration than is generally realised.

And as I write, Blair is on his feet again. Someone has told him that after the Whittington Hospital debacle he needs to grab the news initiative. So he has hot-footed it to Newcastle, and he is talking.

Talking, talking, talking. Talking about ...

... integrity, respect, dedication, fundamental restructuring, equity and fairness (both!), levering in reform, challenges, opportunities, number one priorities, constructive partnership, redesigning public services, empowering, diversity, local creativity, a more just society, a fundamental shift, a new ethos, leadership, effective leadership, systematic training for leadership, social entrepreneurs, can-do innovation and dynamism, striving for excellence, new national standards for excellence, effective pursuit of excellence, a new professionalism, ever-higher standards a revolution in public services ...

Seize the opportunity of change! cries the Prime Minister. Everybody yawns. People are beginning to laugh. comment@thetimes.co.uk