A resolution for Tony Blair: try not to neglect the Cabinet

Ministers burrowing out of their holes, seeking daylight, is the first consequence of the Mandelson affair
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The Independent Culture
AN ESSENTIAL feature of the political pantomime played out during the later Thatcher years and virtually the entire Major regime was that whenever they went abroad the troublemakers in their party had a ball at home. "When the PM's away the mice come out to play" was the theme of many a political column, as the din of domestic politics disrupted prime ministerial excursions. It would be an exaggeration to say that Tony Blair's holiday in the Seychelles has been wrecked by the post-Mandelson manoeuvrings in Britain. Nonetheless the mice have been out to play this week and there have been some pretty significant games.

Some of the mice, Blair's own cabinet colleagues, sense the freedom of a little political space with the departure of Peter Mandelson. Indeed the sound of ministers burrowing out of their holes, seeking daylight, is the first consequence of the Mandelson affair. For more than four years most of them felt intimidated by the BlairMandelson partnership, or were in awe of it. They sat around the top table, uncertain where they stood. Quite unexpectedly the partnership has been broken. Suddenly cabinet ministers have rediscovered some of their own self-confidence.

The interview with John Prescott in The Independent on Wednesday was one such example of the new political situation. It is a remarkable document, one which should head straight for the files of those of us chronicling this elusive government day in, day out. For on the surface Prescott is utterly loyal, and yet within a few paragraphs he implies that the emphasis on spin has detracted from the substance of government policy, that ministers were more interventionist than Mandelson ever allowed for at the DTI and that Keynesianism is alive and kicking under New Labour. He insists that Mandelson's departure was not a big event yet the interview demonstrates how big it was. He would not have given precisely the same answers if Mandelson had still been the rising star of the administration.

What is more, he singles out his relationship with Gordon Brown as being much stronger than before, which I can confirm to be the case. A year before the election there was as great a mutual resentment between the two of them as there was between some of the other rivals at the fractious head of New Labour. In government a respect has evolved, not least as a result of the former Treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson acting as a link between them.

A Brown/Prescott alliance is not necessarily a threat to Blair, but it could become one unless he treads carefully on his return. At different times, for different reasons, both of them have had cause to question privately and with fury what has gone on in the prime ministerial court.

Also reviewing the new political landscape will be Robin Cook, who has never had any time for Mandelsonian New Labourism, but felt so weak six months ago that he let the Blairites virtually rewrite a speech he delivered on the Third Way. Recently he has been worried that Mandelson was breathing down his neck, seeking his job. He was right to be worried. I have no doubt that Mandelson would have been Foreign Secretary under a Blair government in the fullness of time.

Suddenly that burden has been lifted for Cook. He has not become the star he was in opposition overnight, but there will be more of a spring in his stride as the new year begins. Cook has always been the hope of the neo-Keynesians among Labour MPs. With Prescott citing the great economist too, Cook may feel that his cause is not entirely dead.

A little further down the Cabinet others will be reflecting over the New Year. Jack Straw continues to get rave reviews in the media. Can he flex his muscles and scupper for good the PR project which he fiercely opposes? David Blunkett has never been a 100 per cent Blairite and suffered the occasional humiliation at their hands in the early days. Will he sense some room for manoeuvre?

And what about Margaret Beckett, moved from the DTI before many of her policies could be implemented and who has seen some of them revised under Mandelson? And how will Clare Short be feeling now that the most prominent "person in the dark" has failed to survive in the more glamorous and powerful light for more than six months?

These are early days, but Mandelson was such a uniquely powerful figure because his relationship with Blair was so strong, and the dynamics of the Government are bound to change. But any suggestion of a cabinet acting collectively against its leader is way off the mark. While some are united in their wariness of Mandelson's influence on Blair, they are divided among themselves on everything else.

Cook and Short are supporters of PR, while Prescott, Brown and Straw are not. But Cook and Short view each other warily from their overlapping departments. Cook and Brown do not get on still, while Short has been a long-term admirer of Brown and a critic of Prescott. There is ample scope for Blair to divide and rule.

But he needs to make the cabinet feel more involved in the "project" (which Prescott mischievously described only as implementing the manifesto) or else some of them will become rather less docile than they have been since he became leader. We are nowhere near the dying days of Margaret Thatcher, but she stands as a permanent warning of what happens if a cabinet is neglected. Blair's New Year resolution should be to bring back cabinet government or some of the Cabinet will turn on him.

Now, having made a resolution for the Prime Minister, let me propose a related one to all politicians, before more of them are hounded on to the back benches to join Mandelson: play down the sleaze allegations against your opponents for, sooner or later, you will be hoist with your own petard.

In my last column, which appeared the day before the Mandelson/Robinson story broke, I argued that we expected too much from the private lives of politicians. Within 48 hours two of them were gone from the government for relatively trivial reasons. In the current climate more will be on the back benches before the year is out.

The shame of it is that no one who is gay, wealthy or been anywhere near a bra millionairess will consider a career in politics. Yet we need the best politicians we can get our hands on, so to speak. Most talented politicians could earn far more and enjoy more uninhibited sex in other vocations, but still they are viewed as a bunch of sex-crazed crooks.

Some Tories will suffer but the Government will be rocked more. It is one of the many reasons why this year will be a testing one for the Prime Minister. Blair will need his friends, and will have a much clearer idea of his enemies, by the end of 1999.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'