Blair was willing to wound, but afraid to strike

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THE PICTURE of the assembled members of the Cabinet and other notables applauding Mr Tony Blair after his favourable report on their activities was reminiscent of the Central Committee giving a standing ovation to the Chairman of the Party. In the old USSR the practice was that the first party comrade detected sitting down was taken away later and shot. No doubt Mr Alastair Campbell has some similar fate in store for those colleagues who demonstrate less than wholehearted zeal for the Prime Minister.

It will not, however, be Mr Gordon Brown who suffers any further unpleasantness. If Mr Blair had really wanted to diminish his importance, he could have dismissed him outright, not from the Cabinet but from his post, when he would almost certainly have resigned altogether. In practice getting rid of a Chancellor is surprisingly difficult, liable to cause all sorts of trouble.

Since 1945 only three occupants of the office have suffered that fate. C R Attlee dismissed Hugh Dalton for a minor indiscretion; Harold Macmillan gave Selwyn Lloyd the sack; while John Major finally brought himself to get rid of Norman Lamont, who harbours a resentment still, goodness knows why. It is becoming part of mythology that Margaret Thatcher sacked Nigel Lawson. Not so: Lord Lawson resigned, as James Callaghan and Peter Thorneycroft had previously in very different circumstances.

Lady Thatcher's opinion at the beginning of her premiership, by the way, was that the best Chancellor since the war had been Roy Jenkins, though she reproved him for leaving his party. "He should have stayed and fought for what he believed in," she said. He has now returned to the fold, in a way. Certainly his recommendations on electoral reform will be as important as any proposals emanating from any minister apart from Mr Brown.

We all know that no one is indispensable and that Lord Randolph Churchill forgot Goschen. Nevertheless Mr Brown is more necessary to the Prime Minister than anyone else. Though I foresee trouble in 1999, he is now among the leading post-war Chancellors. But Mr Blair could still have suggested to him that, in the nicest possible way, he should ask Mr Charlie Whelan to lower his voice, and Mr Ed Balls to see less of his old friends from the financial press. These modest proposals were not made by Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister turned out to be willing to wound but afraid to strike. Take, for example, Mr Nigel Griffiths. He seemed to be a perfectly competent junior minister. His principal offence was said to be that he had upset various parts of industry. That, one might have thought, was what a Minister for Consumer Affairs was for. Mr Griffiths's real offence was that he was under the protection of Mr Brown and had, indeed, been part of Mr Brown's putative campaign team in 1994.

The story of what happened then, when Mr Brown withdrew from the contest, has been told often enough. There is no need to go through it again. There is, however, one old stick in those still smouldering embers that is worth prodding into life: Mrs Margaret Beckett.

Mrs Beckett is not only Old Labour but Old Hard Left. When John Smith died in 1994 she was his deputy, having opposed most of the reforms he had carried out. She could have stayed as deputy to Mr Blair. There was no vacancy for the deputy leadership. She could not have been challenged until the party conference of that year. However much Mr Blair disliked her presence, he would have had to put up with her. No one would have run against her.

Instead she vaingloriously contested the leadership against Mr Blair and Mr John Prescott, and the deputy leadership against Mr Prescott, and lost both elections. If she had been content with the bird in the hand and not taken a botched shot at the two in the bush, she might be Deputy Prime Minister today.

As it is, she finds herself Leader of the House, having been President of the Board of Trade, the post Mr Peter Mandelson is taking. According to my count, there are now still only five natural Blairites (as distinct from Blairites by convenience or conversion) in the Cabinet: Mr Mandelson, Mr Stephen Byers, Ms Mo Mowlam, Mr Chris Smith and Lord Irvine, though the last belongs to the category more by reason of personal friendship than of political convictions, which are if anything Old or, rather, Original Labour.

So are those of Dr Jack Cunningham, who is the principal beneficiary of last week's stirring events. He is not only Old Labour but Old Corrupt Right. While there is not a stain on Dr Cunningham's character, he comes from the political culture of the unreformed North East.

Some commentators have told part of his story by periphrasis or innuendo. It is surely better to be straightforward. Dr Cunningham's father, Alderman Andrew Cunningham, went to prison following the Poulson scandal. He believes his father was harshly treated and forced to accept responsibility for others. So he may have been. Any loyal son would say the same. But such an episode is bound to have an effect of some kind. Roy Jenkins's father Arthur, miners' leader and later MP, went to prison too. That was for sedition, or distinguished service to the working classes of South-east Wales. The effect on Lord Jenkins was that he refused to exploit an event which might have improved his prospects in the People's Party. Indeed, he was reluctant to discuss the matter at all.

Wherever one looks, one finds Old Labourites in positions of influence, sometimes power. There is not only Dr Cunningham at No 10 (though what he will find to do with himself all day long there is difficult to say). There is Mrs Beckett at the Commons. There is also the dour Mrs Ann Taylor - a kind of Madam Robespierre - as Chief Whip with a seat in the Cabinet, and Lady Jay as Leader of the Lords.

Margaret Jay is not the daughter of Jim Callaghan for nothing. Her instincts are to let sleeping dogs lie. Her predecessor, Lord Richard, was a genuine reformer, unjustly dismissed. In his numerous television appearances afterwards, he managed to combine an evident resentment with a certain disarming honesty. The post-Richard proposal is that, following the expulsion of the hereditary peers, the number of life peers should remain fixed until somebody works out what precisely to do next. I shall be surprised if Mr Blair so restricts his power of patronage .

The trouble with Lords reform is exactly the same as the trouble with the Scottish Parliament and the reform of the welfare state. The Government has not thought the matter through. I like and admire Mr Frank Field. But he always reminds me of the chap in a mac in the corner of the saloon bar cradling a glass of bitter who, if given the chance, will take up half an hour explaining how the secret of the universe is revealed in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid.

I doubt whether the much-admired Mr Alistair Darling (who used to be a leftist ranter on the Edinburgh Council) will do any better, not because of any lack of will but because unravelling the mysteries of social security now requires the combined talents of a Cambridge mathematics don and a Chancery judge. I have known only one politician who possessed this mixture of gifts, Nigel Lawson. And he is not a candidate for Mr Blair's Central Committee.

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