The rumour mill can only grind down Cabinet morale

The reshuffle hype was stoked by insiders whose actions reflect contempt for Labour supporters
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The Independent Culture
THERE HAVE been times over the last few weeks when I have felt as if I have been cast in the role of an uninvited ghost, jangling his chains in the middle of the night, inadvertently intruding on the reshuffle and causing all kinds of bother. Anne McElvoy speculated in these very pages only a couple of weeks ago that I might be the cause of the Prime Minister's woes, as he struggles to shuffle someone out of the Cabinet to take me on for the Labour mayoral nomination, and she was not the only one to do so. Given that I am unlikely to feature directly in the reshuffle, it is at least nice to be mentioned.

The danger, however, is that some of the reshuffle hype has been stoked by Government insiders whose actions reflect a contempt for the views of Labour supporters. Since May 1997, many in the upper echelons of the party have struggled to make the transition from Opposition to Government, turning their attack skills from the Tories on to rival Labour camps. Extensive media contacts and an inordinate love of being "in the know" have fuelled a culture of factional speculation. In his new book, Sultans of Spin, Nicholas Jones, the BBC political correspondent, describes how the actions of the rival aides of Brown and Blair last year came close to threatening Government unity: "this tends to have a destabilising effect on the whole party because the news media will always insist on breaking down MPs and members of the Cabinet into two or more separate camps of supporters."

My fear is that the Government has still not dispelled this aura of internal power politics. The issue of Mo Mowlam is a case in point. The implication is that many of the Millbank Tendency regard Mo as a problem to be resolved rather than an asset to be utilised. She is too popular, an alternative pole of attraction in the Cabinet. In particular, she is seen as too popular with the party.

No one can seriously believe that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can go on holiday without Downing Street having known of her intentions well in advance. Indeed, a spokesman for No 10 said: "She's on holiday. We knew she was going on holiday. She has every right to go on holiday." So yesterday's furore over her well-deserved break seems all the more bizarre. Coming the day after the Ulster Unionists used a Newsnight profile to attack her in the most craven personal terms, the latest stories show what happens when speculation about a minister's future reaches fever pitch. In the end it is the Government that suffers, by giving its critics an opening into which to drive a nasty big wedge.

My own walk-on part has given me a new insight into all of this. For more than a year now, stories have been appearing about Cabinet members whose careers are to be sacrificed to the stopping me from getting the Labour nomination for London mayor. Chief among the speculators has been Sion Simon, a Millbank Tendency commentator and associate editor of The Spectator.

His first go was an article in The Daily Telegraph on 4 May 1998. "Come on Frank Dobson," he wrote, "do it for Britain. Strap on your dusty old six-gun one last time, amble out on to main street as the noon sun blazes down, and send Red Ken up to the political Boot Hill."

This "friendly fire" speculation about Frank as a potential mayor dovetailed with those who were speculating generally about his future at the Department of Health. It reached such a frenzy that Frank finally went on the Today programme and called the mysterious sources whipping it up "anonymous liars".

Despite that, it still came back to haunt the Government when the reshuffle appeared on the horizon. Articles appeared suggesting that Frank faced political oblivion if he did not lay down his ministerial career to save London from a Red Ken tyranny (even if that's what London wanted). Ultimately, the anonymous sources were damaging the Government by giving the impression of huge tussle at the top.

As soon as Simon saw that the Frank Dobson story was temporarily out of legs, he exclusively revealed, this time in The Spectator on 27 February 1999, that in fact "the person now being talked about, though the talk has not yet reached the press, has shown no sign of wanting to be it, any more than Alun Michael wanted to be Prime Minister of Wales, but Mo Mowlam is the obvious candidate". The story promptly appeared on The Guardian's front page, suggesting that Tony Blair was "backing" Mo for London mayor, which presumably came as news to both of them.

It was now Mo's turn to kill the story. She popped into the launch of my biography in April, telling an Evening Standard reporter: "I am not running for mayor. Ken clearly is. That's life."

Still defending his story months later, Simon wrote in The Spectator in July that Mo Mowlam's "potential candidacy was first revealed in this magazine several months ago", omitting the words "but it was just a totally invented fantasy designed to get Mo out of the Cabinet".

Trying to square the circle, Simon returned to the Frank Dobson angle on 10 July this year in The Spectator: "it was surprising that [the Prime Minister] did not simply pick a candidate - Mr Dobson was the obvious one - before the referendum on London government was held". But I thought we'd been told that Mo was "the obvious candidate".

I am not suggesting that Sion Simon is the only one to have stoked these stories. You have to remember that such commentators get editorial space only because they are regarded as well-connected, and their views are thought to reflect New Labour opinion. None of this would matter very much were it not for the fact that many of them are given the equivalent of commentators' dog licenses, to yap around in the press armed with bits of tittle-tattle dressed up as inside information from people who remain anonymous. Machiavelli meets the Red Lion gossip mill.

But the long-term effect of this cavalier New Labour attitude to morale in the Cabinet is not even considered. Unless Tony Blair reins in all the kite-fliers and backstage whisperers who think they are doing his bidding, future reshuffles will be divisive affairs rather than necessary rearrangements of Labour politicians designed to improve the Government's effectiveness, which is what they should be - and should be seen to be.