Comment: Buckle down, Ms Mowlam, and concentrate on your job

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE NEWS that Mo Mowlam's memoirs are to join the creaking shelves of New Labour narratives is no great surprise. After all, this is already the most chronicled government of all time. We have had two biographies of Tony Blair, two of Peter Mandelson and a pair on Gordon Brown. So far, John Prescott and Robin Cook have notched up only one apiece.

A biography of Mowlam is scheduled for the autumn, so she is catching up fast. In 1997, Labour's leading lights won an election and moved on without a moment's thought to secure their political reputations in print. Soon they will be unveiling statues of themselves.

Mowlam's revelations will be different, of course, as they come from her own hand. What is more, her pearls of wisdom will not be taking their place on the bookshelves in the immediate future. Indeed, Mowlam's friends insist that little should be read, so to speak, into news of her planned memoirs: Cabinet ministers, like everyone else, seek longer-term financial security.

Mowlam's husband is out of work. She will not be in the Cabinet for ever. She wanted to get a deal at the best possible moment, but not a single word will be published until after she has left the Government. From a practical point of view, therefore, the publication of her recollections will be no different from those of other retired Cabinet ministers.

All of which is entirely logical, but not the whole story either. Ministerial minds do not turn to their memoirs unless they are in some way or another discontented with the present - especially current ministerial minds that have only been in power for two and half years and which are in the highly unusual position of being virtually guaranteed a second term in government.

Early discontent explains, to some extent, the interest of other ministers in their premature biographies. For them the books were ammunition in wider battles ("If bloody Prescott can have a book, the Chancellor certainly can," I remember one of Brown's aides observing in those dizzy early months). The books were produced at a time when ministers had not immersed themselves fully in their departments. They were still thinking like politicians in opposition, when what was written mattered more than what they did. Now if somebody wrote a book about Brown, he would not have the time to give it much thought.

Mowlam, in contrast, has more time on her hands. Being in charge of the Cabinet Office is one of those ill-defined jobs to which Tony Blair attaches great importance but which has killed off her two predecessors.

She will not be blind to the job's shortcomings either. Her excellent special adviser, Andrew Lappin, was also David Clark's assistant during his unhappy tenure. He will not have uttered the words to Mowlam: "David Clark had a marvellous time there. You'll love it."

In a government with more than its fair share of intrigue and paranoia, the Cabinet Office is the equivalent of Hamlet's Elsinore. You never know who will appear from behind an arras next. I recall waiting to interview David Clark when he was theoretically in charge of the place a few weeks before he was sacked. In the waiting room, Charlie Whelan appeared as if from nowhere. He was "on his way" to the Treasury.

A few moments later, from another corridor, Peter Mandelson walked through, offering only a mischievous wink en route. When I got to interview Clark, the doomed minister was in a terrible state. He kept on declaring during the interview that "Peter Mandelson is nothing to do with me you know," and showed me some flow diagrams of ministerial responsibility to make his point.

Mowlam is nowhere near as vulnerable as Clark, but she is not as politically invincible as her reputation suggests, or possibly, as she believes herself. One influential courtier tells me she has Bill Clinton's popular touch, without his grasp of policy detail. He suggests that one without the other is of limited use.

But there is another side to the Mowlam story which Downing Street and its courtiers should reflect on too. Mowlam is one of several Cabinet ministers who feel either miscast, or downcast. In my view, her instinct about her post-Northern Ireland career was right. It is more fulfilling to run a major Whitehall department than to attempt a co-ordinating role from the centre. In theory there is nothing more important than being in charge of breaking down "departmentalitis". In reality the departments, already being closely "co- ordinated" by the Treasury, are better geared to launch policies.

Mowlam is not alone in trying to make the most of a job which is not altogether clear. The Scottish and Welsh Secretaries should not be in the Cabinet. The Scottish Secretary, John Reid, should have been made Transport Secretary, with Cabinet status, when he was still in John Prescott's Silly Department earlier this year. He is a talent with time on his hands.

If Peter Mandelson's early success in Northern Ireland proves durable, he, too, will have spare time, though in his case planning the next election and advising Blair on other policy areas should soak up most of it.

Other Cabinet ministers have had their low moments. John Prescott is licking his wounds in spite of a brilliant parliamentary performance last week. Wrongly, he still suspects that some of those in Downing Street have briefed against him.

Robin Cook has not always enjoyed himself, although he is going through his strongest phase as Foreign Secretary at the moment.

Even Gordon Brown will not mind newspapers reporting his interest in a job at the IMF, although the interest is marginal at most. There is no harm, from his point of view, in Downing Street being reminded every now and again that the mighty Chancellor cannot be taken for granted.

Restless Cabinet ministers, bearing grudges based on reality or otherwise, are a potentially dangerous part of the political equation. There are no great ideological divides in this Government (although the euro may become a dangerous dividing line if it is ever discussed at Cabinet level, which it has not been so far), but ministers are still not beaming in perfect harmony.

Beneath the surface, some of them are rather miserable. If the Government suffered a slump in popularity, they would start to flex their muscles more.

But that is not going to happen. The authority in Downing Street is based largely on the Government's enduring popularity and the Conservatives' inability to mount a credible opposition. The exclusion of the talented Steve Norris from the Tories' mayoral race in London is only the latest example of how far the party is from power.

In such a rosy context for Blair and his entourage, the moral of the Mowlam memoirs is a rather different and simpler one. She had better buckle down and make a success of the Cabinet Office job, or she will be publishing her memoirs rather earlier than she may be expecting.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'