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Thursday, 13 July, 2000, 17:40 GMT 18:40 UK
Annual report limits the spin
Mo MNowlam at the W H Smith launch of the government's annual report
Cabinet Office Mo Mowlam "selling" the government's annual report
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

As government annual reports go, Tony Blair's third - and probably last - at least looks a bit more like the real thing.

These are the facts. People can make their own judgement on them.

Tony Blair
Despite some glossy pictures and snazzy graphics, the excesses of previous reports have gone in favour of a more straightforward, factual, corporate-style approach - more substance and less spin, to coin a phrase.

Last year the report was roundly condemned for listing all the government's 177 election manifesto commitments and claiming that only two still "remained to be timetabled for action."

The remaining 175 were either ticked as "done, met or kept" or at worst, "underway."

It was unveiled in the Downing Street rose garden at a decidedly presidential-style press conference.

And it all came under the slogan: "So what are they up to?" which drew the inevitable reply: "Spinning."

Cracking jokes

There is a lot less self-congratulation this year and the report candidly admits where the government has failed to meet its pledges - on rising crime and class sizes for example.

But it is deliberately presented in a different format from last year's, making direct year-on-year comparisons virtually impossible, which led to immediate claims that the spin doctors had gor their claws into it.

Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain
Peter Hain: first to warn of disillusion
The rose garden has also been replaced by a launch at a branch of the newsagents W H Smith and a Commons statement by the prime minister.

And that tactic appeared to work as, for the second day running, Mr Blair gave a robust Commons performance that delighted his own backbenchers and clearly rattled the opposition - who have been getting used to having it all their own way of late.

Mr Hague fired off his usual volley of cracking jokes at Mr Blair's expense - the best being his jibe that: "This is the third annual report. The first was entitled `So what do you think', the second was called `So what are we doing', the third one ought to accurately be called `So what on earth are we going to do now?'."

And he had one devastating shot in his locker - the UK Sports Institute in Sheffield, heralded in the report for providing world class facilities, does not yet exist.

"As everyone in Sheffield knows not a brick has been laid. No such institute has been opened and the whole thing is now to be sited in London," he declared.

But, despite the undoubted wounds, it was the prime minister who was once again on the front foot and again looked composed and in command of the situation - as he should do with a majority of over 170 after all.

Even his critics had to admit that, now the chips are down, Mr Blair has risen to the occasion.

His fightback started with the hastily-arranged press conference the day before and was followed through with the publication of the report.

It came against a background of rows over spin and disillusion which, even as the report was being unveiled, were dramatically underlined by Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain.

It was Mr Hain who, over a year ago, was the first to warn the government of the consequences of its apparent obsession with middle England at the expense of its traditional, heartland voters.

In his latest comments, he said most of the government's recent problems had been self-inflicted and that ministers looked like automatons.

Unless Labour started selling its message properly, it would never persuade people to come out and vote for it, he warned.

Judging by his current behaviour, the prime minister probably agrees with much of what Mr Hain said, and Downing Street is said to have seen his article before it was published.

The facts

The prime minister has moved decisively over the past few days to end government spin and get back onto what he sees as the real political agenda and to offer an honest assessment of progress made.

That is reflected in the third annual report when Mr Blair declares: "These are the facts. People can make their own judgement on them."

He, of course, goes on to declare: "My assessment is that most of the key measures are going in the right direction."

And he insists: "We are on the way to meeting our five election pledges and ten-point contract with the people."

But the report is littered with the recognition that there is still "a long way to go" or that "more needs to be done."

It is all part of Mr Blair's fightback after his dreadful summer which culminated in his disastrous performance against William Hague in question time the week before.

Inevitably, the opposition claimed everything the prime minister has done over the past couple of days has been spun just as tightly as in the past.

And the act of non-spinning can easily be seen as just another spin.

But what counts for Tony Blair now is whether he can regain the political initiative and give his MPs a relaxed summer in which to prepare for the real election campaign.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Labour warning as report published
12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair moves back to substance
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