Tony's friends: the group that guides a leader

MP's claims of a tight-knit 'kitchen cabinet' at odds with Blair's style of party management
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The Independent Online
When Richard Burden launched his outspoken attack on Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour Party he concentrated his fire on the small group of people at the top.

Mr Burden, first elected as MP for Birmingham Northfield in 1992, told New Statesman and Society: "Power is increasingly centralised on the leader's office, with immense pressure on everyone else to fall into line in the interests of unity and not jeopardising electoral chances ...

"I am worried about the prospect of a party continually concerned with avoiding the spread of negative images of itself, desperate to be elected as representatives of the mainstream opinion, and yet with its inner sanctum holding a virtual monopoly on defining what mainstream opinion consists of.

"I thought that kind of approach to political leadership went out of fashion when the Berlin Wall came down."

But the striking feature of Tony Blair's leadership style, as has become clear during his first year, is that those with access to the "inner sanctum" do not form a tight-knit kitchen cabinet of the kind implied by Mr Burden's criticism.

But the Labour leader does rely on a series of separate close relationships with individuals - the likely wielders of influence in a future government.

Of course, Mr Blair's relationships with the leading politicians in a prospective Labour Cabinet are also important. Three probable members of a Blair Cabinet, Gordon Brown, Derry Irvine and, in time, Peter Mandelson, also have privileged access to the "inner sanctum". And one of the successes of Mr Blair's first year has been the strong - but again separate - axis he has developed with John Prescott, Robin Cook and David Blunkett.

But it is the non-elected members of the "inner sanctum" who inspire suspicion among Labour MPs. Max Madden, the left-wing MP for Bradford West, spoke yesterday of a group of "unelected and unaccountable and in some cases unknown people with very limited links to the Labour Party" who were reported to be advising Mr Blair.

Mr Burden's criticism of an over-mighty leader's office has focused attention on Mr Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and his press secretary Alastair Campbell. As important, although less well-known, are Anji Hunter, Mr Blair's longstanding assistant who performs a role similar to that of Marcia Williams in Harold Wilson's office, and Derry Irvine, Lord Irvine of Lairg, Labour's legal affairs spokesman in the House of Lords.

David Miliband, 30, head of policy in Mr Blair's office, has attracted attention mainly because he is so young. He joined the Labour leader after working unofficially for him during the leadership election last year, when he was still at the left-inclined think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research.

His work at the IPPR on education policy informed much of Mr Blair's thinking on his central policy platform during that campaign. His discretion and diplomatic skill has ensured a harmonious relationship with Roland Wales, director of policy at Labour HQ in Walworth Road. They have overseen policy changes on the minimum wage, opted-out schools, exam league tables, Northern Ireland, regional government and the House of Lords.

Educated at a north London comprehensive and the son of the Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband, David is the brother of the even younger Ed, now working for Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor.

Finally, the Labour leader's wife, Cherie Booth, who once seemed set to enter parliament before him, is an important, if unquantifiable, influence. The attention paid to the Labour leader's office reflects the cultural and organisational changes in the party during Neil Kinnock's leadership which strengthened the leader's authority. The changes partly reflect broader changes in politics, society and the media, but they have also clearly taken place with the support of the party membership. To the extent that the leader has gained power at the expense of local general committee members, the change has tended to bring policy more in line with the views of both the mass membership and the electorate.

The more serious element of criticism arises from Mr Blair's apparent detachment from the traditions of the Labour Party. This impression is reinforced by the youth and lack of "Labour movement" experience of Blair's Babes, the research and press staff in the leader's office.

Mr Blair dismisses such criticisms, and asks for his staff to be judged on results. His deputy, John Prescott, yesterday had no time for suggestions - similar to those he himself made in Mr Kinnock's time - that the leader's office dictated policy. "If people want to change the policy, then let them come forward and we'll have the debate. It's no use publishing an article and then going on holiday," he said.

Body of influence: The key figures in the Labour leader's inner sanctum

Cherie Booth

Ms Booth is a political person, more like her predecessors Elizabeth (now Baroness) Smith and Glenys Kinnock than Norma Major or Mary Wilson. A successful barrister earning about pounds 200,000 a year, she became a QC in April. Her main influence on her husband was to reinforce his ambition during his rise to the top. Her political views appear to be similar to his, and it may be that her most important contribution in 10, Downing Street would be to act as a role model for career women.

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Anji Hunter

If access is power, she is powerful, because she usually accompanies Mr Blair and is the most important gatekeeper to the actual "inner sanctum", the Leader of the Opposition's office behind the Speaker's Chair in the Palace of Westminster. She has worked as his Commons assistant since 1988, having known him since 1970, when they were both teenagers at different private schools in Scotland. She is a "fixer, charmer and tactician", according to one of the pre-leadership Blair entourage.

Derry Irvine

Lord Irvine of Lairg QC is head of the legal chambers where Tony Blair began his training as a barrister in 1976. He and Mr Blair remain close, and speak on the telephone nearly every morning - Derry (Alexander) Irvine starts work at 6.30. Mr Blair respects his "fierce intellect", and he would become Lord Chancellor in a Labour Cabinet. Lord Irvine was a friend of John Smith's from Glasgow University, and stood unsuccessfully for parliament in 1970, when Smith was elected.

Jonathan Powell

Chief of Staff since January this year. Imported from the British Embassy in Washington, where he and Mr Blair impressed each other when the then shadow Home Secretary visited Bill Clinton's victorious campaign team after the 1992 election. An uncanny parallel with the way Margaret Thatcher recruited Jonathan's brother Charles, foreign affairs adviser and Private Secretary, when, as Leader of the Opposition, she visited Bonn, where he was at the Embassy. Middle brother Chris handles the Labour Party's advertising.

Alastair Campbell

Mr Blair's press secretary, officially since last year's Labour conference, unofficially since at least 1989, when Mr Campbell was political editor of the Daily Mirror and Mr Blair the relatively unknown Labour spokesman on employment. He was, and remains an aggressive propagandist. He is clearly more than a mere press officer, and has some influence on strategy and policy - but is protected from hostility by his good personal relations with Labour MPs, including John Prescott.

Gordon Brown

Despite the tensions of last year's leadership struggle, the shadow Chancellor retains his paramount influence with Mr Blair, developed over the 12 years since they both entered the House of Commons in 1983. Mr Brown's control over economic policy remains absolute and, as chairman of a small daily early-morning strategy meeting, he is responsible for overall planning of Labour's message. His blueprint for Labour as the low-tax party, drawn up after the 1992 election, caused, and continues to cause, puzzlement, but has now come to fruition.

Peter Mandelson

Mr Blair drew on his advice throughout last year's Labour leadership election. Nicknamed "Bobby" after John F. Kennedy's younger brother. His ruthless approach to the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign has reignited deep suspicions of him among Labour MPs who resent his closeness to the leader - and his skill in managing the media. But he built bridges during the by-election. Ian McCartney, a mainstream frontbencher assigned to the campaign, said yesterday he would be "proud" to work with him again.

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