The chronic insecurity ruling Labour's gang of four

Servants of the People:the inside story of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99)
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Rawnsley has been fortunate in the timing of his book's publication. His good fortune is not so much that the book was used to give the Prime Minister and Chancellor a kicking when the Government was dropping in the polls. Rather, this sudden deflation illustrates perfectly his book's thesis, such as it is: that the four men who make up the New Labour core - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - are chronically insecure. Collectively, that could be seen as the gravest of their "psychological flaws".

Andrew Rawnsley has been fortunate in the timing of his book's publication. His good fortune is not so much that the book was used to give the Prime Minister and Chancellor a kicking when the Government was dropping in the polls. Rather, this sudden deflation illustrates perfectly his book's thesis, such as it is: that the four men who make up the New Labour core - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - are chronically insecure. Collectively, that could be seen as the gravest of their "psychological flaws".

As would be expected of Rawnsley, one of the best current political columnists, Servants of the People is a well-written history of the Blair government's first three years, laced with dry wit and anonymous quotations, some of which have caused a fuss out of proportion to their significance. The chapters on the euro, on foreign policy and on welfare reform are excellent analyses. The account of the confusion over the euro in autumn 1997 is unusually clear and suggests persuasively that Brown bounced Blair into, in effect, ruling out a referendum on monetary union during this parliament.

On foreign policy, Rawnsley gives the Government more credit than is fashionable, rightly entering both Sierra Leone and the Pinochet affair on the "ethical" side of the ledger. His account of the farcical mismatch of Harriet Harman and Frank Field at social security is a good tale well told.And he fairly exposes the emptiness of Blair's thinking on welfare reform: 1) He's in favour. 2) ...er, that's it.

The blaze of publicity that accompanied the book's serialisation diverted attention from its attempt to gain perspective on Blair's first term. Rawnsley has spoken to many of the best witnesses, including Blair himself (not that he would have said anything revelatory) but not Brown, and some of the anonymous quotations add texture. But his reliance on third-party reported speech means that some of the "dialogue" does not ring true, and the cloak of anonymity renders the whole exercise vulnerable to counter-attack.

Nor does his description of his methodology sit well with the sanctimonious position taken by his newspaper, The Observer, and its sister, The Guardian, on anonymous sources. Private dialogue is based on a "trustworthy account" from participants or witnesses, "or from someone reliable to whom the content of the conversation was subsequently reported".

Nevertheless, the sense generally seems right, and confidence in the author is strengthened by his promise to "make my source material available" after Blair leaves office. Unfortunately for Rawnsley, though, Brown has emphatically repudiated the most controversial words attributed to him: the claim that Brown, after apparently denying, on radio, knowledge of Bernie Ecclestone's donation, told his staff, "I lied. If this gets out, I'll be destroyed." As Brown has said, they are not the sort of words he would use.

One problem is that the prominence of the charges levelled in this book is determined by the vividness of quotations, rather than intrinsic worth. The important issues here are why Blair himself changed government policy toward Ecclestone's motor-racing interests and whether he acted dishonestly in the aftermath. On issues such as those, Rawnsley makes sober, balanced and - in this case - damning - judgements, which have not made the headlines.

The book is well worth reading for the parts that have not been serialised. Its final chapter offers a fine account of the troubles since Blair's speech to the Women's Institute in June. The present crisis of confidence seems less like a sudden shock caused by the fuel protests than the inevitable result of a longer period of dithering. Rawnsley's observation that "Blair tended to be more impressive in a crisis, when he had no time to allow the nervous side of his nature to prevail over the courageous" may have applied in Kosovo and Northern Ireland. Does it apply now?

The reviewer's revised biography of Tony Blair will be out early next year

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