Andreas Whittam Smith: The fall of both President and PM is no coincidence

The two leaders are joined together at the hip not just by Iraq but also by their methods

The Independent

Published: 15 May 2006

The simultaneous collapse in the opinion poll ratings of George W Bush and Tony Blair is a repudiation of their style of governing. Don't think it is just coincidence that their electorates are losing faith in them at the same time. The two leaders are joined together at the hip not just by their common enterprise in Iraq but also by their methods. Both impose policies from the top, both operate through small coteries of special advisors and both ignore the advice of experts when it doesn't suit.

Take these comments on Mr Bush written last week by Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate.Com, one of the best of the American online magazines. You would think you were reading about Mr Blair. "Mr Bush tends to appoint mediocre people he trusts to be loyal." That is an exact description of John Prescott, Mr Blair's second-in-command.

The Slate editor went on to state that Mr Bush "delegates hardly any decision-making authority to anyone beyond a few top aides". This prompted me to refresh my memory of what Lord Butler observed when he reviewed how the British government came to believe that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was bursting with weapons of mass destruction. He noted the informal nature of much of the Government's decision making process. Critics call Mr Blair's methods "sofa' government". Sofa government, Oval Office government, they are the same thing.

A final example from Mr Weisberg: Mr Bush "seldom holds anyone accountable". Mr Blair is equally blind to the faults of colleagues. Margaret Beckett, for instance, was the minister responsible for the failure of the Government to pay subsidies to farmers on time, causing them immense personal difficulties, yet she is promoted to Foreign Secretary. Peter Mandelson leaves the Government in disgrace and is brought back again as soon as possible. He does it again and he is made a European Commissioner.

There are further similarities. Neither leader is interested in serious policy analysis, unlike their predecessors, who got stuck into detail. Mr Clinton was often described as a policy wonk. Mrs Thatcher briefed herself so thoroughly that it was always an ordeal to discuss policy with her. Both Mr Bush and Mr Blair assume that they have all the answers. As Mr Bush remarked the other day: "I'm the decider and I decide what's best." Mr Blair has never been known to admit an error.

In fact both the President and the Prime Minister have consistently poor judgement. They remind me of a recent study which showed that people who believe that they are always right are rarely correct in their judgements whereas those who often entertain doubts about the wisdom of their decisions hit the target much more often.

The interesting question is why the two men, with such different backgrounds, operating in completely different political systems, should share the same ineffective management styles. The reason, I think, is that both reached power by means of highly sophisticated marketing operations. They employed political strategists of considerable ability - Karl Rove for Mr Bush, Peter Mandelson for Mr Blair. And they both learnt that electioneering is never done.

For Mr Bush and Mr Blair, the fight to win the next election begins the morning after the previous victory. Manipulating public opinion and putting your political opponents on the wrong foot matters much more than delivery of services. Presentation is everything. That is why, when Mr Blair meets a problem, he brings in new legislation rather than tackles the underlying causes. For the former shows the government in a good light, moving forward, daring the opposition parties to object, whereas the latter reveals only incompetence.

There are further consequences of a style of government which prizes good marketing rather than good administration. It means that the conventional sources of advice, such as traditional civil servants and established experts, are disregarded. For these people, in the minds of the two leaders, are simply incapable of thinking politically.

Moreover, marketing demands tight control. For mixed messages can ruin the best conceived plans. Thus everything must be controlled from the top. Every decision must flow from the White House or from 10 Downing Street. Even truth-telling is an optional extra. For everything is subordinated to the winning of the next election.

The very good news of the past few weeks is that the two leaders have at last been rumbled by their electorates. Ordinary people in the US and Britain have begun to see the sheer incompetence of the Bush and Blair administrations. And they have come to understand that they've never been valued as people but only as voters. They have had enough.