The Blairite: Tony's new model managers

The latest cabinet reshuffle has appointed only individuals in the Prime Minister's image. But what are its exact components?
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The Independent Online

atch out there's a Blairite about. Heading most government departments, co-ordinating policies from the Cabinet Office, sitting expectantly and loyally on the Commons benches, the Blairites have taken over. They are "modern", "progressive" and "youthful", even if a few of them are heading towards the age of 50. The men are slim and clean-shaven. Beards and moustaches, if any, went as part of the preparation for power. Women are slim and well-coiffured. The Blairites enjoy life, but not to excess. After all there is much work to do and they work very hard.

atch out there's a Blairite about. Heading most government departments, co-ordinating policies from the Cabinet Office, sitting expectantly and loyally on the Commons benches, the Blairites have taken over. They are "modern", "progressive" and "youthful", even if a few of them are heading towards the age of 50. The men are slim and clean-shaven. Beards and moustaches, if any, went as part of the preparation for power. Women are slim and well-coiffured. The Blairites enjoy life, but not to excess. After all there is much work to do and they work very hard.

Tony Blair's cabinet reshuffle last Monday was a pivotal moment for Blairism. For the first time since becoming leader of his party, he promoted ministers seemingly on one consideration alone: whether the person was a Blairite. Peter Mandelson is back, defying political convention which decrees that an aberrant minister must pay heavily for his sins. Alan Milburn is in charge of the NHS, although the much-loved Mo Mowlam wanted the job.

Geoff Hoon presides over Britain's defence, politely stepping over the unfulfilled ambition of John Reid. The Blairite women got a look in as well. Tessa Jowell was promoted to education and employment with special responsibility for the New Deal. Yvette Cooper becomes the youngest minister in the government, responsible for public health.

But what do the ubiquitous, dominant, all-conquering Blairites stand for? While they, themselves, are only too visible, their beliefs and driving principles are harder to identify. Partly this is because they have spent most of the past 20 years ditching those principles that drove them into politics in the first place. Many leading Blairites were ardent Bennites in the early 1980s. Some, such as Charlie Leadbeater, Blair's "favourite thinker", were Communists.

Instead of ditching one ideology and reaching for another, they make a virtue now of carrying light ideological baggage. They are followers of the Third Way, neither supporters of unbridled capitalism nor socialism. Some Blairites regard the Third Way as a new political philosophy, others do not really know what it means but loyally recite the term.

Some, such as Gordon Brown, hardly ever use the term and secretly disapprove of it. But then again, although Mr Brown is the driving force behind many Blairite policies, he is not a Blairite. He is a Brownite. What's the difference? Well, Brownites look a little more harassed and do not talk affectionately about the Liberal Democrats. And some Brownites get worked up about the Government's reactionary economic policies, even though the leading Brownite is Chancellor of the Exchequer. In other words, most Brownites are closet Blairites, or the other way around.

The Blairites are, above all, highly competent managers. Britain has not been ruled by such a competent bunch for many years. What works is what matters, not the ideology. If the private sector can deliver, the private sector will be used.

Mr Milburn is a strong supporter of public/private finance schemes for the NHS. In spite of reports to the contrary, air traffic control will be privatised and the London Underground will still become a public/private venture. These projects come under John Prescott's domain. Emotionally, Mr Prescott is not a Blairite, of course. He is too close to the unions, too attached to Labour's past. But in terms of ownership he is as much a Blairite as those rising up the Government ­ and who will, at some point, decide that his time is up.

Unencumbered by ideological prejudice, the Blairites are interested in delivery. Mr Milburn points out that people can shop round the clock and yet wait weeks to get a doctor's appointment. David Blunkett, in his efforts to impose performance-related pay on teachers, reminds them that in the private sector people working in the same office often are on different wage levels.

While the Blairites in the big spending departments want to spend more to improve their services, they are tough on overall expenditure levels. Mr Milburn was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Alistair Darling moved from the same post to take charge of that other big spending department, the Department of Social Security. Mr Darling's proposals to contain his mammoth budget, by reforming allowances to the disabled, were defeated four times in the Lords last week. They also provoked the biggest backbench revolt in the Commons since the election. But neither protest will deter him.

Mr Blunkett and Mr Milburn will stress also that any increases in the budget will be linked to reforms in schools and hospitals. The Blairite big spenders are in tune with the prudent message persistently sent out by Downing Street and the Treasury.

While the Blairites manage competently, they are not without principles. They believe economic stability is the best possible context for helping the worst-off. Did the poor benefit, they ask, when Britain went from boom to bust and back again? By being prudent and keeping most voters and the media on their side they have been able to slip in measures that they genuinely support.

The Blairites are rather proud of the minimum wage and the welfare-to-work programme. Indeed Andrew Smith, who used to be in charge of the New Deal, was promoted to the Cabinet last week. He and Ms Jowell regard work as the main solution to low pay, although they would not intervene to keep a private firm afloat. Such forms of intervention were the preserve of Old Labour, the Blairites' favourite target.

Instead, the Blairites are great admirers of the private sector. Stephen Byers who has been on an upward path ever since he told journalists that Labour would sever the trade union link, happily watered down Labour's "fairness at work" proposals to the delight of business leaders. But the Blairites genuinely believe that to be pro-business does not make them anti-unions or "right wing". After all, they are navigating a Third Way. They point out that the CBI has been won round to the minimum wage and that even the new right-wing Conservative Party will not enter the next election pledged to scrap it.

Can they work a similar magic and win round public opinion on the euro, an infinitely bigger challenge? The Blairites are from a post-war generation that is at ease with Europe. But they will not take risks on the single currency. Nervy approach play to achieving a radical objective creates a typical dilemma for Blairites. They will hold a referendum on the single currency only when they know they can win, but their cautious advocacy makes that task all the more difficult.

They are not risk takers with the constitution either. Scotland has got its parliament, a historic reform which the Blairites delivered efficiently, rather than with passion. The remainder of the constitutional agenda tends to get in their way. They are delighted to be rid of the hereditary peers in the Lords, but have not got a clue about the composition of a fully reformed second chamber. Their instinct is to make it, largely, an appointed body, so people more talented than the mediocrities who happen to have been elected, can be brought into government.

Lord Falconer, Blair's good friend, held more sway in the Cabinet Office than Jack Cunningham. When Blair looked to find someone to fill the all-important transport brief, he appointed Lord Macdonald rather than an elected representative.

The Blairites are relaxed about the Liberal Democrats, but are losing interest in electoral reform now they are wielding power so effectively themselves under the existing voting system. For the same reason, a passion for freedom of information dulled when the Blairites started to govern. Jack Straw, a cautious reformer of the constitution, but with a socially authoritarian streak, is the perfect Blairite Home Secretary.

Mr Straw has another Blairite characteristic, an obsession with the media. He has spent many years courting the Daily Mail. Other Blairites prefer the Sun and the Times. Presenting their case and themselves is in their political blood. Serving their apprenticeships in the North-east, Mr Milburn and Mr Byers flooded local newspaper offices with press releases. Dr Mowlam is in the Cabinet Office partly because she is a star media performer. Last week's cabinet reshuffle was the most perfectly choreographed in history because the Blairites knew how to play their parts. Mr Mandelson and Dr Mowlam, performing a double act for 24 hours, almost looked as if they liked each other.

All these characteristics accumulate to produce one outcome. The Blairites are winners. Blair won his leadership election by a huge margin in 1994, he won a landslide election victory and has never been behind in the polls since becoming leader. But, equally important, the Blairites grew up against the background of defeat. They were rising up Labour's ranks as the party itself lost four elections in a row. Eighteen years of opposition has led the Blairites to be deeply cautious politicians. They know what it is like to be in the wilderness.

This ambiguity at the heart of the triumphant, cautious Blairites means they could lead us in one of two very different directions. They could be the most radical reformers we have seen for many decades, transforming the way Britain sees itself and is perceived abroad. Alternatively, they could be swatted away by an unexpected event that destroys their reputation for competence.

The Blairites are becoming increasingly confident that over two terms they will make a radical impact. But in spite of all the accusations of arrogance and control freakery, none of them is entirely sure that they will avoid the other more humiliating fate.

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