One of the most debilitating aspects of divisions in government is the emotional energy they absorb.
Whilst I can and regularly do make the case that between them Tony Blair and Gordon Brown achieved a huge amount together, and whilst I can equally make the case that when Peter Mandelson and I were working together well we managed to make a lot happen, any careful, or even loose, reading of my diaries makes clear that way too much energy was spent on dealing with frictions, mild differences of opinion, and personality spats.
We were not helped in this by a media that was changing fast, and one of whose major changes was a preference for personality stories over policy stories.
One year into the coalition, ministers would do well to reflect on the above. Because any careful, or indeed loose, reading of the newspapers shows that a new prism is developing for the reporting of politics … replacing Prism 1 the ‘coalition working together to sort out Labour’s mess’ (sic) a new Prism 2 is developing – ‘working separately to re-establish our own identity.’
I have just flicked through the Labour Party’s morning media brief. Story upon story, column upon column, have at their heart the narrative of a fast changing relationship between the Tories and the Lib Dems. Regular signs too now of divisions within the Lib Dems.
It is clear that too many ministers and MPs think the public care about their emotional disposition towards each other. They don’t. Where the coalition has been right in regard to Prism 1 is that the public want them to work together to try to solve some of the country’s problems.
Where they are absolutely wrong with regard to Prism 2 is in thinking the public want a running commentary on how David and Nick are getting on, whether Danny is managing to inject a bit of Lib Demmery into George, whether Chris and Vince are on the same page. Nor do they want the debate on the NHS reforms to centre on whether they are good or bad for the Lib Dems — the only question is are they good or bad for the NHS?
There is a point in my diaries where I complain to TB that I can’t be bothered with all the ’emotionalism’ of dealing with fractious political relationships. There was an upside to TB-GBery. But the downsides were significant. I have a feeling the coalition are learning few of the lessons of what went well, and even fewer of what went badly.
But they should be warned that the public will tire of the soap operatic emotionalism very quickly, and they would do well to stop feeding it quite so assiduously. The media will make enough of the differences on their own, without all the help they are clearly getting the whole time.