What this Government needs is a whole lot more of Tony's cronies

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SINCE THE election, one Tory attack on the government has hit home. Utter the two dreaded words "Tony's cronies" and ministers shiver, Tories cheer, and journalists exchange knowing nods. To the left of us, to the right of us and down the middle Tony's mates are meant to be everywhere.

In which case what is Lord Wakeham doing in charge of the Royal Commission on Lords Reform? And while we are about it, how is the presence of David Mellor on the Football Task Force explained? Other beneficiaries of government patronage include Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten and John Gummer. It will not be long before Ken Clarke is offered a tempting role, no doubt related to Europe. None of these people are Tony's mates, although he probably prefers their company to some in his own party.

The soundbite "Tony's cronies" is not merely an exaggeration of the reality, it conveys the precise opposite of what is really happening. At the heart of the Government, there are very few people with substantial influence. Their names are repeated with monotonous frequency, but none of them are cronies. Neither a chancellor nor a press secretary who has served for more than four years fit that description. Outside the inner circle, the stress is on inclusiveness. It was Margaret Thatcher who asked whether a beneficiary of her patronage was "one of us". Blair is just as likely to ask whether he or she was a moderate Tory before offering a job.

The appointment of Lord Wakeham to run the commission on the Lords was a very clever move. Politics is partly a game of chess. Giving Wakeham such a sensitive task was the equivalent of putting Hague in check, with checkmate only a few moves away.

Hague's dilemma was all too clearly illustrated last Wednesday when, after all the sound and fury he had generated over Lords reform, he did not question Blair on the issue at Prime Minister's Question Time. On BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme yesterday he was sheepish on the subject, revealing that Lord Wakeham had apologised for not letting him know in advance of his appointment. Apparently the process had happened so quickly Wakeham had no time to inform his leader. Make of that excuse what you will.

Wakeham's appointment - obscured initially by the Ashdown retirement, which was announced an hour later - is bizarre. The Tories are in opposition for the first time in 18 years, but one of them is now in charge of the next stage of Lords reform. When I raised this with a couple of Blairite peers over the weekend they insisted this was not a problem. Gerald Kaufman was also on the commission, they pointed out.

"Gerald's a good fixer", as one of them put it. He certainly is, as anyone who watched him reshape Labour's unilateralist defence policy in opposition would testify. But what happens if Wakeham, not known as one of life's radicals, flexes his conservative muscles, as he is perfectly entitled to do? For the Government he is a convenient pawn in a game of chess, but he might seize his opportunity and deliver proposals that please his own party more than the one which is meant to be in power.

There is a tendency with this government to make a great song and dance over symbolic appointments and then react with some dismay when the person appointed treats the actual task with some seriousness. Ask Frank Field, whose appointment as Social Security minister was listed by the Government as one its outstanding achievements in its first-hundred days celebration. When Field actually attempted to implement the ideas his appointment was meant to symbolise, he was sacked. Lord Jenkins' appointment to chair a commission on electoral reform was announced to a similar fanfare of trumpets. The problems began when he had the cheek to actually produce some proposals. They are gathering dust, and will be submerged by many more layers of dust before they are put to the voters in a referendum.

But it is the appointment of senior Tories to important posts which has been an especially distinctive characteristic of the Government. "Big tent government", as Americans call it, has obvious advantages. Hague is stymied on several fronts. Seemingly wherever he turns to attack, a Tory lurks in the bushes. What about the Millennium Dome? Speak to Michael Heseltine about that. Reservations about policing in Northern Ireland? Chris Patten is the man you should address. As for that ill-thought-out Lords Reform? Lord Wakeham is in charge of that.

Rightly Tony Blair is keen, too, to encourage gently the split between the moderate Tories and the Eurosceptic right-wingers currently in charge of their party. I can appreciate the tactics. It is like watching a top premiership side outmanoeuvre opposition from a lower division. I understand the bold bigger picture, also, in which some of the tribalism in politics is broken down to the long-term disadvantage of the right wing Tory party.

But the generosity to senior Tories exposes also a lack of confidence in the Government. Conservative governments never reciprocate, while the Blair Government is accelerating a trend which other Labour administrations began. Harold Wilson appointed the Conservative Lord Hill to become chairman of the BBC and offered several of his business associates, not necessarily Labour supporters, important posts. What a contrast to the Thatcherite approach where local government was dismantled to be replaced by quangos often chaired by "one of us" and where the BBC would never in a thousand years have been placed under the control of a Labour supporter.

"We are still having to prove we are up to the job" is how one senior cabinet minister put it to me. He was referring to the need to convince officials in Whitehall, as well as the electorate, that after virtually no experience of government the ministers could administer competently.

Perhaps that explains why a government with the biggest majority since the war is so bothered by the Tories that it spends much time outmanoeuvring them, partly by plucking off its elder statesmen. Labour has been in opposition for so long that it still cannot fully believe it has finally made it into government. It looks to those natural men of government, Heseltine , Wakeham, Patten and co, to give it some weight.

When the Tories placed their friends in positions of power, the response in the media was "Good old Maggie, she is a strong leader who knows where she is going." There was no jibe about "Maggie's mates" to compete with "Tony's cronies". In spite of the near fatal collapse of the Tories and Labour's landslide win, it is the beleaguered opposition which is still seen as the natural party of government. We need more of Tony's cronies in positions of power if that perception is to change.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'.