WILKES'S diary - UK - News - The Independent

WILKES'S diary

Tony Blair, Wilkes gathers, is missing no opportunity to drive home his message on how he will run the Labour Party in power. At a recent gathering of the Tribune group, the Labour leader remarked in passing how appalled and amazed he was to see the Tory Euro-rebels welcomed back by John Major with open arms; and how (flash of famous Labour smile here) "it wouldn't happen under Labour". I gather that the giggles all round were distinctly nervous.

He didn't labour the point. But then perhaps he didn't have to. For as Peter Hain - the one man who managed to make a speech at the Clause IV conference without saying whether he was for or against the thing - points out in Chartist, the character of the Tribune group has been changing pretty fast since it was the praetorian guard of Neil Kinnock's Labour Party. First there was the dumping of Hain himself as secretary in 1993, not to mention that of his fellow neo-Keynesian Roger Berry, who was blocked as vice-chairman. And now, Hain reveals, membership of the body which in times of yore was a thorn in the side of successive Labour prime ministers has plummeted by 50 per cent. Among those who have somehow neglected to renew their subscriptions, apparently, are Clare Short, Michael Meacher, John Prescott, Joan Lestor, Dick Caborn and Derek Fatchett. "Most of us," says Hain, "wish respected friends who have remained in the group - like Angela Eagle, Richard Burden and John Denham - all the best."

You have to admire the style of Michael Carttiss: exactly the sort of persistent rebel that Michael Heseltine was fulminating against in his radio interview on Wednesday. The affable Great Yarmouth MP, finding himself for once in his own party's division lobby on Wednesday night, felt some explanation was necessary.

So he bounded up to the beleaguered Virginia Bottomley and explained that he was not, repeat not, voting in support of her. Rather, it was a vote against the Evening Standard. Which has been conducting a ferocious campaign to save London hospitals.

Times change for the protagonists in the Grunwick dispute of 1977. For 18-year-old readers who were not born then, this was the left's celebrated cause of that year. The largely female, Asian workforce at the film processing company tried to claim their trade union rights. Leading the strikers was a young Jack Dromey, a minor union official who shot to fame as a result. Leading the forces of reaction was the local right-wing Conservative MP, John Gorst, who acted for free as public relations adviser to George Ward, Grunwick's owner.

Today Mr Dromey is running for the leadership of the once-great Transport and General Workers' Union, as a man who can do business with Tony Blair, against the incumbent, Bill Morris, the candidate of "the left".

And John Gorst, now Sir John, is leading the fight against hard-hearted Conservatism in his battle to keep open the casualty department of Edgware General Hospital.

There are hidden agendas big enough to sink the Titanic in both cases. It is not irrelevant, in Mr Dromey's case, that he is married to Harriet Harman, Shadow Cabinet moderniser and Labour's spokeswoman on employment. This led to an entertaining interview with Mr Harriet Harman on the BBC's The World At One on Tuesday, in which he was asked about the policy of his wife (who was not mentioned) of consulting employers about the level of Labour's minimum wage after the next election.

His rival, Mr Morris, condemned this as "putting Dracula in charge of a clich" - I mean, blood bank. Mr Dromey said the TGWU wanted a figure of at least £4 an hour, and mentioned £5 an hour as a possibility in two years' time, but that "the Labour Party [ie, my wife] will not be in a position to deliver that commitment until after the general election. We should be clear what we want ... and then seeking support for that from the Labour Party. As to what the Labour Party then does, you'll have to ask Tony Blair [or my wife] that."

In the case of Sir John, it has passed remarkably unremarked that he is one of four Conservative MPs chasing three seats after boundary changes in the north London borough of Barnet. For Sir John, tribune of the people and defender of the NHS, voting against the Government - "Trojan Horse for a Labour government" or not - will do his reselection chances no harm at all.

Michael Martin, Labour chairman of the administration committee responsible for ejecting journos from the terrace of the Commons, has struck again, this time at the Olympian hacks who go under the title of "political commentators". The Serjeant at Arms' office had no objections to giving them permission to go into the lobby. But Mr Martin's committee vetoed it. Just wait till the Labour lads find out. The blithering nincompoop has managed to ban once young, now ageing, fogey Simon Heffer from the lobby - and he's John Major's biggest enemy in Fleet Street.

After all that fuss about bias forced the BBC to cut its coverage of the Clause IV special conference to 90 minutes, including commentary from Tory MPs and the inane decision to cut Tony Blair off in order to interview Peter Mandel-son, it turns out that Sky carried four hours of live coverage. No writ from the Freedom Association has been received.

A strange thing, the "press conference". Nowadays, we have to call them "news conferences" because their purpose is often to provide talking footage for television. On Monday, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Clare Short hosted a "local elections" news conference, which, of course, had nothing to do with the local elections. It was a "soundbite for the lunchtime news" conference, and consisted of Mr Blair talking about his friendly relations with the trade unions, and Mr Brown reading out an extract from a speech he was about to give that afternoon.

Anyway, the point about it was that it was attended by no fewer than 19 Labour Party functionaries: nine from Labour HQ, headed by Tom Sawyer, the party's general secretary; seven from Mr Blair's office, headed by Jonathan Powell, chief of staff; two from Mr Brown's office, Ed Balls, economic adviser, and Charlie Whelan, press officer; and one from Mr Prescott's office, his political adviser Rosie Winterton. Ms Short, as far as I could tell, came on her own. There were about 30 reporters, five TV crews and five photographers. Which gives a hack-to-handler ratio of 2:1. So what did all these apparatchiks do? They stood at the back and worshipped.

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