Blair needs to be more than tough

Leading a Labour cabinet will need Thatcher's steel and Major's cunning, argues Andrew Marr
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The Independent Online
How tough is Tony Blair? Well, he says he's tough. His personal attitude is consciously Thatcherite. When he spoke earlier this week about how he would run government ''from the centre'' and promised ''uncompromising ... unalterable'' New Labour policies, he was echoing her. The tone, if not the policies themselves, thrills the blood of all those visceral leader- followers who felt themselves politically disenfranchised by the Major years. At the other end of the spectrum, the Labour left snarls privately about Blair's ''Stalinism''.

What's the truth? First, let us dispose of the idea that Blair's promise to lead from the front is a pose, or secondary to his agenda - some kind of political fashion accessory.

He means it. Gorbachev was said to have ''a nice smile but iron teeth''. Having heard Blair privately on the brief, bleak future that is waiting for Labour rebels or disloyal leakers, and having talked to shocked trade unionists who tried to arm-twist him and came away nursing disjointed elbows, I think Blair's famous rictus is similar in substance. Would one of nature's Fotherington-Thomases have dispatched Gordon Brown quite so swiftly in the leadership race following John Smith's death?

Toughness and leader-cult politics are central to New Labour. Just as Thatcher created a new electoral base by bringing over from Labour a swathe of blue-collar workers and the lower middle classes, bolting them on to the traditional Tory constituency, so Blair is trying to refashion Labour's base, by swinging the middle classes behind him.

Having fought a desperately unsuccessful by-election during the noontide of triumphal, Falklands-era Thatcherism, Blair knows very well that these potential New Labour voters are patriotic, hard-boiled, materialistic and, above all, prone to admire strong leaders. Winning them in May depends partly on Blair's presentation of the election as a fight between the strong (him) and the weak (John Major). It may not be a pretty sight. But it is a carefully considered one.

Where, though, will it lead him if he wins? The first point is an obvious one, which is that Blair will be unable to achieve anything much if he is not a strong and sometimes ruthless parliamentary leader. Without tight control of a notoriously fissiparous party, he will be unable to push through the reforms he has promised. Those of us who want decentralisation of power and political pluralism from him have to accept the paradox that to deliver, he must first control the centre.

The other point is a more personal one, but no less important. It concerns the complex relations between Blair, Gordon Brown, and the other heavyweights, particularly Robin Cook and John Prescott. The unchallenged facts are these: Prescott has no leadership ambitions for himself. If he breaks with Blair, or storms out of a Labour government, it will be bad management by the Labour leader, and nothing more. Meanwhile Brown and Cook, both ambitious, are united by mutual and cordial dislike.

If Labour wins, how much does this matter? Let us start with another simple truth rammed home by the Thatcher era: a government depends heavily on the relationship between the Prime Minister and Chancellor.

Blair's relationship with Brown is complex: the shadow Chancellor was his intellectual mentor, his more-than-equal, for years. They speak almost every day in private. And, perhaps, Blair uses Brown as a lightning-conductor for hostility to his own views. Certainly, it is easier to attack Brown than the leader himself.

MPs and shadow ministers who are hostile to Brown retort that Blair has found his own centre and no longer depends so much on anyone; they imply that his old friend, who remains one of New Labour's key intellectuals and who has grown steadily in influence, can be difficult for Blair, a little younger and a little less experienced in the Labour movement, to handle.

Well, we are in murky waters here, which will not be finally probed until the historians arrive. (And what fun they will have.) But one thing is clear. It is that the prospects of a New Labour government hanging together would be immeasurably strengthened by a quiet dinner between Brown and Cook, at which they buried their hatchets in the floor. Conversely, the ultimate Blairite nightmare would be a battle royal between the two of them, with Brown representing hardline New Labour and Cook leading the more radical wing of the party.

At this point, the lessons of the Thatcher-Major years become particularly interesting. The Labour Party is not excited about Westminster sovereignty in the way that the Tories are, but any such struggle would inevitably swirl around the same European/economic policy area that so plagues the Conservatives. If Blair arrives at Number 10 in May, then one of his long- term tactical objectives must be to ensure that this never happens.

It seems as if the lesson from the Major government is straightforward and has clearly been understood by Blair: trying to balance one faction against another, or playing off one assertive minister against another, is a mug's game and will merely convey the impression of weakness and drift. I suspect that much of Blair's ''I'll lead from the centre'' speech this week was directly intended to answer the Major experience.

The Thatcher lesson seems equally clear. She slowly but steadily stripped her Cabinet of unbelievers and survived potential rifts over Europe for many years before being finally brought down by a general cabinet revolt. There was no one, not even Nigel Lawson, whom she did not personally dominate. Her relationship with ''her'' electorate was direct, and for many people almost bypassed the Tory party. Ergo, Blair must create for himself a Cabinet in his own image to match the new Blairite electorate.

But both of these obvious lessons contain serious flaws. What brought Thatcher down was the same thing that had sustained her for so long - her dependence on a court, cut off from the daily doings of the party at Westminster, and infected by hubris. From there came the poisonous briefings against cabinet ministers. In the end, the Cabinet reminded her that they mattered, in the most brutal possible way.

Meanwhile, the underrated John Major has a lesson to teach Labour too. He has, after all, been a remarkable survivor. And why? Partly because he cleverly and thoughtfully drew on side his most dangerous Tory rivals, Michael Heseltine above all. He expended time, charm and ingenuity to keeping the vital ministers with him, even when he was privately irritated with them. It worked, given the huge ideological strains pulling at his party, remarkably well.

So the simple opposition between a ''successful, strong leader'', (Thatcher) and a ''weak, failed leader'' (Major) may be good populist propaganda for Blair; but it would be dangerous for him entirely to believe it himself. He is right to insist on strong leadership and a personal direction. A political reformist with Thatcher's energy and sense of direction would be a great thing for this country. But he needs to be a constant charmer too: in a parliamentary system, leaders who get too far ahead of their colleagues and parties meet swift and sticky ends.

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