Ruthless pruning

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