No. 10: Aides take places next to the seat of power

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Indy Politics

The pictures of Tony Blair's War Cabinet are revealing. At his left sit his deputy, John Prescott, his director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell, and his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. Baroness Morgan, the newly-appointed director of political and government relations, is also at the table.

When Mr Campbell became the first Downing Street press secretary to observe the weekly meetings of the Cabinet, it symbolised the shift in power under Mr Blair from politicians to unelected advisers.

Now the pictures of last Thursday's session of the War Cabinet – which will be shown in a television documentary tonight – will fuel the debate about who really calls the Government's tune.

It is true that eight senior ministers sit on the committee handling Britain's response to the events of 11 September. But Mr Campbell and his fellow advisers do not sit quietly on the sidelines while the elected ministers take the key decisions in the war in terrorism. They are at the very heart of the process, which, as the pictures reveal, is where Mr Blair wants them.

The BBC2 programme, Cabinet Confidential, which was made by Michael Cockerell and which is screened at 7.10pm, traces how Mr Blair and his predecessors have run their Cabinets in times of war and peace. It highlights the changes that have taken place since Mr Blair came to power in 1997.

The contrast with the last Labour government, led by James Callaghan, could not be more marked. When it was engulfed by an economic crisis, the Cabinet held a series of meetings for two weeks, with every member allowed to put in a paper. Today, Cabinet meetings usually last for less than an hour and the key decisions have already been taken in advance – either by Mr Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, Mr Blair and the individual Cabinet minister concerned, or Mr Blair and his close aides.

Even when Mr Blair's own views are not shared by most of his Cabinet, he gets his way. In Mr Blair's absence, Mr Prescott chaired a discussion in which most ministers opposed the Millennium Dome project. Less than two hours later, Mr Blair announced it would go ahead. Similarly, the Cabinet was not informed before Mr Brown announced that the Bank of England would take over the responsibility for setting interest rates.

"I read it in the paper," Mo Mowlam, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tells the programme. "It wasn't discussed beforehand."

Ms Mowlam left Parliament in June, frustrated because her career had stalled; but her barbed comments about Mr Blair's style will be taken seriously, because she has seen it all from the inside. "I went in thinking the Cabinet would be a body for discussion and debate. It wasn't," she says. "It was a committee where Tony outlined what he was doing, Gordon outlined what he was doing, other senior politicians did their bit, and that was it."

The Prime Minister, defending what has been dubbed his "command, control" style, says: "It's not that I want everything done via me, but we have a programme and it's my job as Prime Minister to deliver it."

Mr Blair will not like the programme, but he should perhaps reflect on one point made by it: Margaret Thatcher took her Cabinet for granted and, at the moment when she needed her ministers, they decided to commit regicide.

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