Ruthless pruning

Tony Blair's first reshuffle may be conclusive evidence of the triumph of personality over ideology

FOR Sunday journalists, the week invariably begins with an empty notebook. Eight-and-a-half years ago, on my first week at this newspaper as a novice political correspondent, the cupboard was particularly bare. The response was the tried and tested one - lunch with a contact - and it came up trumps.

Over a meal in a decent fish restaurant (the job has some compensations) my Labour official mentioned a speech soon to be made by the party's up-and-coming employment spokesman. He would announce that the closed shop was to be axed as party policy. It was a landmark for the Labour Party.

Eight-and-a-half years on, Tony Blair, for it was he who made the speech, is making bigger headlines. His cabinet reshuffle last week consolidated a position that is more powerful than any recent prime minister's. It also helped illuminate the path Mr Blair, and Labour, has travelled in that time.

Then, the young moderniser was deep in an ideological struggle with the left to reform the Labour Party, to curb its reliance on the trade unions, and to change its constitution. Last week the enemy was rather different. Mr Blair's ruthless purge had dispatched two social security ministers, who were failing to deliver, and sent a blunt message to Gordon Brown by sidelining close allies and promoting ministers and MPs who are identified with No 10, rather than No 11 Downing Street. Those behind the reshuffle did little to conceal their thinking. As one source close to the Prime Minister put it: "Labour has always failed when it is divided either by policies, or by egos. At the moment it is the latter."

IS THIS conclusive evidence of the triumph of personality over ideology? If so, how could a Labour government echo so clearly a High Tory view of politics, where the cynical manoeuvring and manipulation of a political elite triumphs effortlessly over policy. The answers lie in a twilight world inhabited by politicians and the media, and in the relations between them over the last decade.

As the Thatcher years reached their climax, the government machine routinely dismissed suggestions that relations between the Prime Minister and Chancellor and Foreign Secretary left much to be desired. The denials were not taken at face value, but only a few appreciated the scale of the schism.

Gradually, the tensions surfaced. Nigel Lawson resigned because Mrs Thatcher insisted on employing her own economic adviser, Alan Walters. But political reporters had been slow to appreciate the extent of the disenchantment between Number 10 and Number 11 which had pre-dated the seismic row over Britain's membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In his memoirs, Lawson notes that the media completely failed to pick up direct evidence of his opposition to the poll tax, even when he refused - in contravention of protocol - to be listed on the back of the Bill as a supporter.

The Major government failed to dampen press enthusiasm for the running story of the "Cabinet split". Indeed, we had a field day as his "Cabinet of Chums" disintegrated into constant feud. Stories about people are generally more eagerly read than stories about policy, and the deteriorating relationship between Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street was just that. Mr Major duly sacked his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, who spent much of the remainder of the parliament seeking revenge. The prime minister's most likely challenger, meanwhile, was none other than his second chancellor, Kenneth Clarke.

BY THE TIME Mr Blair took office the media was particularly conscious of tension, particularly when it involved No 10 and No 11. The enmities between Messrs Brown, Cook and Prescott had festered for a decade or more. Mr Mandelson's role in Tony Blair's election as Labour leader, and his "betrayal" of Mr Brown, have added a dash of piquancy to a traditional dish. But Labour brought an innovation to the party - the most professional news management ever seen in British politics.

Even if most of its efforts were directed against the Tories, it was obvious that those with access to, and some patronage over, the media, would use their black arts to disadvantage colleagues. The consequence was more transparent inside Labour than out. As one member of the Government puts it: "There is only one important thing in government at the moment: Blair versus Brown."

New Labour has actually created the prism through which it is being viewed. And, since presentation is so important to modern government, image and reality have begun to merge. We in the media know about the tensions between Number 10 and Number 11 because they are played out through the newspapers. And in government they know we know.

The news managers predict how events will be interpreted, and that becomes a factor in decision-taking. As Downing Street well knew, the reshuffle was destined to be seen either as a victory for Mr Blair, or as evidence of Mr Brown's power. For Number 10, nothing could be worse than victory for Brown. It would weaken one of the central powers of the Prime Minister - that of patronage. The answer had to be a reshuffle which left no one in any doubt about who was in charge.

ISSUES ARE about to make a comeback, however, and that means the beginning of a more important chapter for the government. If feuds develop over substantial policies, the Government will be in the kind of trouble no amount of spin doctoring can solve. And there is plenty of potential for that.

Much of the last year was spent implementing manifesto promises; most of the next will be devoted to creating new policies and in the struggle against a deteriorating economy. Within 12 months Mr Blair faces crucial decisions which could transform the political landscape. The first will bear down on him in the form of the report on electoral reform by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. This is an issue on which the Prime Minister has stubbornly refused to commit himself, but it will be happening at the same time as some alarming developments for Labour north of the border.

Only in the past few months has the Government woken up to the challenge by the Scottish Nationalists and begun to pour resources into the battle against Alex Salmond's SNP in the run-up to next year's elections to the new Scottish Parliament. Labour's latest tactic is to copy faithfully the Tories' "Tax Bombshell" campaign against Labour in 1992 which helped to blow Neil Kinnock out of the water - though this is a high-risk strategy since precedents north of the border have been less successful.

Strong evidence of reversal in Labour's Scottish heartland would lead Mr Blair to scrutinise even more carefully the electoral system for the UK as a whole. Most Labour prime ministers (this one being a notable exception) rely heavily on a swathe of Scottish Labour MPs to get them into Downing Street. If he were to sense that Scotland is heading in a nationalist direction Mr Blair's gambling instinct could be aroused, and he could be persuaded to endorse a form of electoral reform. A second force for radical change is pushing in the same direction: that is Europe.

Although the Government has postponed a decision on the single currency until after the next election, events may yet force its hand. Gavyn Davies, one of the Chancellor's economic advisers, has pointed out that the British economy will be hardly any less convergent with continental economies in 2002 than it is now.

Mr Blair is under some pressure already from pro-Europeans to prepare the economy for entry early in the next Parliament. There are a few who have not given up hope of a referendum on EMU before the next election. Most of the really big political events of the past 10 years - the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's hurried departure from the ERM, the disintegration of the Conservative Party - have had their roots in Europe. With the advent of the euro, history may be about to repeat itself. So Brussels, which is where I shall be installed at the start of the new political season in September, may be a good place from which to continue to look at British politics.

And my informant from the West End fish restaurant? He's now a successful lobbyist - so successful that he was not implicated in the recent cash- for-access scandal. But that is another New Labour story.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker