Warning: don't write off Dr Mowlam just yet

`The conventional wisdom is that she doesn't have much of a role because Number 10 drives policy'

THIS YEAR may not have been exactly an annus horribilis for Mo Mowlam, but it hasn't been all that mirabilis either. Consider her position this time last year. Her brave journey to face down the loyalist prisoners in the Maze is an indelible memory of 1998. Second in national popularity to Tony Blair, she had been acclaimed, with a gushing display of mass emotion, at the Labour Party conference two months earlier. Her courage in overcoming illness had become a symbol of hope for the success of the peace process.

And then it started to go slightly wrong. First the peace process seemed to become becalmed. The depth of the animosity between David Trimble and the Northern Ireland Secretary became a matter of public comment, not least by Trimble himself. There were dark, destructive murmurs that Mowlam's mastery of detail did not match the warmth and approachability of her personality. And it became known that Tony Blair had intended to shift her in that messy July reshuffle, ideally so she could run for the London mayoralty, but that she had refused unless she were moved to a big departmental job of a sort that was, apparently, unavailable.

She was able to do so, of course, partly because she was so popular. The threat that she might resign from the Cabinet if she were forced out of the Northern Ireland office was a potent one which, if carried out, would have had a seriously destabilising effect. But her resistance expended quite a lot of her admittedly large share of that mystical commodity, personal political capital. In the October reshuffle - after a party conference in which she was acclaimed with somewhat less tumult than she had been a year earlier - she was in a weaker position. She was forced to accept a job that she had, by all accounts, scorned back in July: the nebulous, ill-defined co-ordination post at the Cabinet Office that had previously been filled by Jack Cunningham.

It was not an easy translation. The reports that she hated her new job - she was forced to take the unusual step of writing to her civil servants to deny this - may have been exaggerated. But there was more than a grain of truth to them. It wasn't so much that a lot of the inter-departmental fixing was already being done by a more junior minister under her - Tony Blair's close and trusted friend, the affable and sharp-minded Lord Falconer. Or that the Cabinet Office had become a bit of an unglamorous repository for problems that had already proved difficult to resolve - such as policy towards GM foods. Or that it had a series of dispiriting, low-profile functions such as "better government". It was, rather, the sheer contrast of the Cabinet Office with life in Northern Ireland.

It didn't have a clear mission in the way the NIO had. It didn't legislate. It was about systems as much as people. For a politician branded by her informality, it was quite a bastion of formality. And as the supposed proponent of - to use that toe-curling phrase, "joined-up government" - the Cabinet Office, with its manifold responsibilities, was not itself that joined-up.

As it happened, Mo Mowlam had been graceful beyond the call of duty after the reshuffle, travelling back with her successor to Belfast immediately after Mandelson's appointment to show him around and help him to settle in. But she would hardly have been human if her homesickness for Belfast had not been compounded by the fact that it had been not on her watch, but on Peter Mandelson's, that the big breakthrough to devolved government was finally made. Or that Mandelson was widely credited with repairing government relations with the Unionists and successfully urging David Trimble to take the terms of the Mitchell deal to his party's ruling council.

At this point our ruthless old friend, Westminster conventional wisdom, kicks in. It is that Mo Mowlam does not have much of a role, that Downing Street, and perhaps the Treasury even more so, remain the real enforcers of domestic policy, and that she can only become more discontented and, worse, fatally semi-detached.

Maybe. There remains, however, a rather different possibility. This week's announcement that Mowlam had been formally appointed by Blair to help to ensure delivery of the policies of the Social Exclusion Unit made few headlines. Perhaps, as the cynics will assume, it was just a way of making her feel better. But then again, perhaps Mo Mowlam may be assuming a role that plays to her strengths.

It was a central tenet of Blairism, first that most of Thatcher's economic restructuring was necessary but had left an unacceptable social devastation in its wake; and secondly that repairing the damage required a degree of interdepartmental co-operation that the British system was notoriously bad at. He set up the SEU, the brainchild of No 10's social-policy man, Geoff Mulgan, which has produced rigorous, target-setting analyses of the most intractable examples of social damage: truancy, young men who fall off the jobs-and-training ladder, sink estates, teenage pregnancies, rough sleepers.

The reason that the results of this work are not yet visible on the streets is not a lack of clarity, and only partly of money; it is mainly the lack of real political weight behind its delivery. There was not a minister charged with delivery who could deal with Jack Straw or David Blunkett, let alone Gordon Brown, as Cabinet equals.

So there is a real job here, rather more fulfilling than the overrated one of being "Minister for the Today programme". It will not be easy. It will require application, and sensitivity in dealing with Cabinet colleagues. The formal powers are quite heavily circumscribed: the Unit will still report directly not to Mowlam, but to the Prime Minister. Her role as Blair's "eyes and ears" will take her frequently out of town. She could yet find the inevitable bureaucracy irksome. But there are good reasons for her not to let it do so, not least the new platform the SEU role offers her - one that speaks directly to some of the latent anxieties about New Labour. The new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, demonstrating that the gap between rich and poor widened rather than narrowed in the year after the election, is a reminder of how far the Government still has to go in fulfilling some of the elementary requirements of Labour in office. And this matters nowhere more than in the party itself.

It is, in other words, a job with a potential power base - and therefore with clout. Mowlam would be ill advised to use threats lightly. But her potency lies at least partly in the fact that a resignation caused by a Labour government not doing enough about social deprivation would be a pretty deadly weapon, effective even if - perhaps especially if - never detonated.

The alleged invisibility of Mo Mowlam in recent weeks has been exaggerated. She has had a bout of flu, and last week her mother died. She is now back at her desk, apparently brisk and enthusiastic. How she handles the job is now up to her. But it is not too much to say that, in a heavily technocratic Cabinet, Mowlam has the chance to become its social conscience.

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee