Election `97: `Now it starts', and courtiers crowd into the New Camelot

The Tory old guard has given way to a circle of young, high-flying achievers who are ambitious to be heard
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Indy Politics
As an immaculate dawn broke over the terrace of the Royal Festival Hall on Friday, Gerry Robinson, the chief executive of Granada, reached through the exhilarated throng to place an arm on Lord Hollick's shoulder and say simply: "Now it starts." Lord Hollick, the chief executive of United News and Media, murmured agreement. Both businessmen - by most standards, hard-nosed products of the Thatcher years - were plainly affected by the emotion that swelled at first light.

Now it starts, indeed: a new age with a tide of new faces, and not just in Parliament. Outside the House of Commons there is another group that has waited as long as any of the new MPs for Labour's restoration, a group which is young, successful in its own right and ambitious to be heard. For its members the years of exile from influence ended at the same moment as they did for the party, and what was extraordinary about the scene on the South Bank was the sudden and visible coalescence of the people who will inhabit Tony Blair's new court.

They are different from the Conservative insiders who have pretty much run things for the past 18 years. They are different in aspiration, background, appearance, manner and in the range of their interests. Among them you will find an immunologist of world renown, comics, actors, directors, thriller writers, journalists, lawyers, media moguls, film-makers, publishers, architects, bankers and business people. To an eerie degree they represent the fields in which modern Britain is enjoying success, and if they do not quite yet suggest the glamour of Jack Kennedy's Camelot of 35 ago, they possess an equivalent vigour.

The Tory old guard placed a singular emphasis on business. The new guard is interested in money, but not obsessively so, and the connections between its members are not dictated by the needs of business. In the mid-Eighties you could draw a line that linked Conservative grandees such as Lord Sterling, Sir Tim Bell, Lord King, Lord McAlpine, Lord Gowrie, Lord Hanson and Lord Archer in a circle of financial influence and gain. The new guard is more haphazard in its make-up and much less titled. So, on Friday morning at the Royal Festival Hall you could see the classical actress Sinead Cusack talking to Gerry Robinson, the comedian Eddie Izzard watching the results with Lord (Richard) Rogers, and Richard Branson cheering Tony while standing alongside the public relations consultant Julia Hobsbawm.

Unsurprisingly, the core of Mr Blair's Camelot consists of lawyers such as Lord Irvine of Lairg, Geoffrey Robinson QC, Charlie Faulkner and Helena Kennedy QC, who gave an election night party for Labour supporters which acted as the prelude for Mr Blair's triumphal progress to the Festival Hall. Mr Blair understands and trusts lawyers best, perhaps, but he also likes the media, particularly the group of TV entrepreneurs who emerged from LWT - Greg Dyke, one of the founders of Channel Five, Barry Cox, Melvyn Bragg and John Birt, the Director General of the BBC who, like Bragg, also held a party on Thursday night. Although they might blush at the suggestion, it would not be surprising to see them all titled by the next century. Every Camelot needs its knights.

The connection between them and the Blair camp is the former LWT producer, Peter Mandelson, who was largely responsible for the focus and speed of the election campaign. During Mr Blair's victory speech by the Thames, he wore his most beatific expression in a decade. Mr Mandelson's smile means a lot. He may be a MP, but he wields great power in Camelot, often deciding for Mr Blair who should and should not be a member.

Patronage is the reason so many have made the slight ideological shift needed to qualify as courtiers. Total conversion has not been necessary. A new government has many jobs at its disposal. Advisory boards, legal appointments, quangos, directorships of galleries, the control of regulatory bodies and some embassies are all, eventually, in the gift of the Government, and it is natural for the Prime Minister to want to fill them with his people. In the early Eighties, Margaret Thatcher never made an appointment without asking, "Is he one of us?"

Mr Blair may be more imaginative in his appointments, if only because he has a wider and more lively group of people from which to choose. On offer are the talents of the film producer Sir David Puttnam, the publisher and now chairman of the Guardian Bob Gavron, the Indian multi-millionaire Lord (Swraj) Paul, Sir Terence Conran, the independent producer Denise O`Donoghue, the banker Gavyn Davies and businessmen like Richard Branson and Alan Sugar. By any standards, this is useful group to have on your side. The last three were well connected to the Conservative establishment (for a brief moment Mr Branson and Lady Thatcher shared an interest in litter), but this will not be an obstacle to their preferment because they all signalled support for Mr Blair at important moments. The same is true of Gerry Robinson, who aside from his job at Granada is chairman of BSkyB.

A striking feature of New Labour's court is the number of couples involved - Penny and John Mortimer, Lord and Lady Rogers, Gail Rebuck, the head of Random House and her husband, the election strategist Philip Gould, Baroness (Margaret) Jay and her husband, the Aids specialist Professor Michael Adler, Robert Harris the best-selling novelist and his wife Gill Hornby, Ken and Barbara Follet, William Sieghart, the head of Forward Publishing and his wife, Molly Dineen, who made one of the Labour election broadcasts, Trevor Nunn, who soon takes over the National Theatre, and his wife, the actress Imogen Stubbs.

Where the New Labour court differs from the Conservative version is that the party grants more or less equal access to both halves of a marriage. New Labour has many more career women among its supporters, a sign perhaps of the generational distinctions now to be drawn between the two major parties. Labour is simply more modern in its membership and, therefore, in its outlook.

Of course, not every court is a Camelot. The favoured circles that have held sway at various moments in the past 40 years were mostly rather dull. Harold Wilson certainly made an attempt to glamourise his following by including stars from Coronation Street on his invitation lists, and awarding the Beatles the MBE, but at base the entourage consisted of economists and number crunchers. Lady Thatcher was obsessed by supportive ideologues and throughout her premiership remained ignorant about vast areas of British life. John Major tried to rectify this by broadening the guest list at No 10, but in six years he never really formed a favoured circle, being content to inherit a few of Lady Thatcher's cronies and fill the rest of the list from showbiz and sporting figures who caught his interest.

That will certainly change under Prime Minister Blair, whose court musters the actors Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack, Alan Rickman, David Swift, Neil Pearson and Harry Enfield - most of them long-standing Labour campaigners - and at least four internationally known directors: Mike Leigh, Anthony Minghella, Stephen Frears and Trevor Nunn. Among writers, New Labour has a substantial following. Many of them were part of the Camden Hill Group which met in the Kensington home of Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter during the late Eighties when Lady Thatcher's power was at its height and intellectual resistance to it almost non-existent.

Besides the hosts, that group's members included Ian McEwan, Margaret Drabble, Salman Rushdie, Germaine Greer, Michael Holroyd and John Mortimer. It is perhaps odd that the Camden Hill Group, despite its hopes for the regeneration of the left, never quite developed into the nucleus of Mr Blair's Camelot. In the end, it was probably too wedded to old Labour values to be attractive to Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, who began discreetly to think of reform 18 months after the inaugural meetings in Camden Hill. Mr Blair was interested in a workable synthesis of two doctrines, not principles, and the place he found people who understood this was in the communications industry - advertisers, journalists and television people - all of whom were alert to the power of marketing.

That is the secret of Blair's Camelot. It represents a combination of legal pragmatism, showbiz and presentation skills. But any idea that these people miraculously came together as the New Labour project was forming would be wrong. This is a long-established network which involves people who have known each other, or of each other, for years. Their time has come, and they have only just started.