Tony Blair's top aide Peter Mandelson has not talked to his one-time pal Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, for two years, except in a formal setting. A report in the Times yesterday speculated that a conciliator might now have to be brought in to heal the breach.
The peacemaker could be in for a busy time. Once he has got these two to shake hands, he might get round to persuading John Prescott, the deputy leader, to make it up with the rest of the Shadow Cabinet, starting with Harriet Harman, the health spokeswoman.
He might then mediate between Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary and Mr Brown, who are regularly at loggerheads. Success there would qualify the conciliator to move into some serious grudge matches, starting with the cold war between Clare Short, the shadow Transport Secretary, and her deputy Brian Wilson. They are spitting tacks at each other over rail privatisation.
One way and another, Labour's traditional image of a "broad church" where differences are tolerated - encouraged, even - is taking a battering. It may be the proximity of office, or just a sign of the times, but one insider insists: "Look, just because we are in the same party doesn't mean we have to be bosom friends. That's a ridiculous idea."
It's not just the comrades who can't stand the sight of each other. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay is not speaking to Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, who he dropped in the mire with a press gaffe on a speech that never was. And there is creative tension between Mawhinney and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps a peacemaker could reconcile them on Radio 4, since they spend most of their time quarrelling about who should appear on the Today programme to pretend that the Tories will win the next election.
Hezza is a good hater, as his long feud with Lady Thatcher demonstrated, but even he has his rivals in post-war politics. Ernie Bevin, the foreign secretary in Attlee's government, thought Herbert Morrison, (Mandelson's grandfather: this must run in families) was a little rat. Overhearing that Morrison was "his own worst enemy", Bevin famously muttered: "Not while I'm alive he ain't."
Great Political Feuds would be a thick, and hugely entertaining, volume. Lord Rosebery, prime minister a century ago, would not speak to his chancellor, Sir Robert Harcourt. "They were scarcely on writing terms," says the political historian Robert Rhodes James. Harcourt believed Queen Victoria should have made him Prime Minister,and got his own back on Rosebery, a wealthy landowner, by introducing death duties.
In the Thirties, the Labour premier Ramsay MacDonald cordially loathed his foreign secretary Arthur Henderson, and the relationship between the Tory prime minister Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan in the Fifties was similar. Eric Heffer, the left-wing Liverpool MP, disliked Neil Kinnock so much he could not even bring himself to use his name. He referred to "the bald-headed Welshman who presumes to call himself the leader of the Labour Party".
Ah, but which party has the better haters? "Oh, Labour," replies Rhodes James, a former Conservative MP, without hesitation. "The Tories keep up a veneer of courtesy." And why do politicians make such good feuders? "It's the intense rivalry, coinciding with genuine personal dislike," he thinks.
All Westminster knows about Labour's private war: Brown versus Mandelson. Its origins lie in the party leadership campaign two years ago, when Mandelson, a Brown protege, discreetly switched his allegiance to Tony Blair. Brown has never forgiven him for this "betrayal".
Yesterday's report in the Times, suggesting that Donald Dewar, the Labour Chief Whip, could be called in to act as a conciliator, was discounted by senior party sources. Party insiders claimed to detect the hand of Mr Mandelson - Labour's most consummate "spin doctor" - behind the report, which seems designed to put the shadow Chancellor on the defensive.
Since Mr Mandelson has ambitions to win a seat in Tony Blair's Cabinet, where Mr Brown will certainly be, this is a vendetta that could run and run.Reuse content