Alan Watkins: Mr Blair's reshuffle does not make sense

Click to follow

It is little known that I was once reported to the Press Council, now the Press Complaints Commission, by two women who were promoted by Mr Tony Blair in his second administration. The complainants were Ms Harriet Harman, who rejoins the Government as Solicitor-General, and Ms Patricia Hewitt, who is promoted to the Cabinet as Secretary for Trade and Industry. At the time they were both luminaries of the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. I was writing a column in what we old journalists have been brought up to call Another Sunday Newspaper. The council was about to publish a report in which I was interested. Accordingly I ambled off to its premises, somewhere in the region of King's Cross.

Ms Harman, the legal officer, was as charming and helpful as she always is (Ms Hewitt was then general secretary). She showed me the forthcoming report; indeed, allowed me to take away a copy. I duly used the material unattributably. I also remarked that the council was more interested in attacking the constabulary than in safeguarding the liberties of the subject. I was surprised to be told next week that Ms Harman, Ms Hewitt and a crazed Oxford professor associated with the NCCL had reported me to the Press Council.

The offences charged were breaking an embargo and unfairly attacking the NCCL. My defence took hours of tedious paperwork. I was not called before any tribunal. The adjudication was that I had indeed broken an embargo but that I was fully entitled to express my opinions about the body.

The whole exercise was incredibly silly and wasteful of time. I still dispute that I broke any embargo at all. Even so, I have no hard feelings towards Ms Harman. Indeed, after this episode, but before she joined Mr Blair's first Cabinet as Secretary for Social Security, I suggested she might become the first Law Officer to be both a woman and a solicitor. Till her appointment last week, they had all been male barristers. What Lord Irvine ­ a conservative in legal matters ­ had to say about her elevation I do not know. But the papers should surely have welcomed the doubly unprecedented nature of her appointment.

Ms Hewitt's progress has been smoother than that of Ms Harman, who was harshly dismissed from the Cabinet after only a year or so. Ms Hewitt was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, then minister of state in her present department. It would only be a matter of time, the wise predicted, before she was in the real Cabinet. So it has turned out. In her youth she was quite a little ball of fire. Thus, at the 1980 conference: "What we need and what we have the right to demand is a guarantee that the next Labour government will implement the policies which this Labour Party decided on, and not the policies of a handful of cabinet ministers and a handful of civil servants."

There was more along the same lines. When it was fashionable to be on the left, there Ms Hewitt inevitably was. When Mr Neil Kinnock Mark II was in the ascendant, there at his side she was duly to be found. And when Mr Blair conquered all, she was at the ready with the crown of laurel. Ms Hewitt is the first woman incumbent in the Parish of Bray.

Nor is Ms Hewitt alone. The old Kinnockites have done well under Mr Blair's dispensation. There is Mr Charles Clarke. He was recently kind enough to correct me politely after I had written, in a book published last year, that Mr Peter Mandelson had worked for Mr Kinnock in the elections of 1987 and 1992. Not so, wrote Mr Clarke: in 1992 it had been Mr Clarke at the leader's side.

He is at the leader's side once again. Instead of being a departmental minister, he is in the Cabinet as chairman of the party. The Conservatives have a tradition either of slipping the chairman of their party organisation into the Cabinet or of appointing as chairman a senior minister who is already in the Cabinet on his merits. Mr Clarke does not fall into either category quite, not least because it is the first such Labour appointment.

The People's Party has always had a chairman, a post which lasts a year and is filled under the hallowed Labour principle of Buggins Turn from among the members of the National Executive Committee. In 1958 the chairman was Tom Driberg, MP, journalist, churchwarden and expert on fellatio. A visiting delegation from the USSR met him and then told another journalist:

"Yesterday we meet your leader."

"Mr Gaitskell, you mean [for Hugh Gaitskell was then leader of the Labour Party]?"

"No, no, your great leader, Thomas Driberg."

In the Russia of those days the chairman of the party was the most important person in the land apart from the general secretary. In the best Soviet style, General Secretary Blair has appointed Chairman Clarke to serve on the Central Committee, where his chief ­ perhaps his only ­ function will be to liaise between government and party apparatchiks. If a Conservative prime minister had made such an appointment, he would have been denounced for a scandalous misuse of public funds. Mr Blair is guilty not only of this but, characteristically, of changing the party constitution without so much as a by-your-leave. The real party chairman, by the way, is Ms Maggie Jones.

There have been other rum creations of ministers and ministries alike. It is obvious that what we need is a minister of transport with an independent department and a seat in the Cabinet. The ideal candidate for such a post was Lord Macdonald, who had done the same job outside the Cabinet as part of Mr John Prescott's ministry. This is where he still finds himself, as a kind of progress-chaser for the whole administration. The new transport minister is Mr John Spellar, an affable, bearded cove hitherto connected in some way with defence. He remains outside the Cabinet, in a department hived off from Mr Prescott's old department and now headed by Mr Stephen Byers.

It does not make sense. Nor does it make sense to set No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury permanently at one another's throats like ravening beasts from the hills. What does make sense is the appointment of Mr Robin Cook as Leader of the House and his replacement as Foreign Secretary by Mr Jack Straw. Mr Cook was an outstanding parliamentarian and may be able to change the House for the better.

The readers of the runes have seen Mr Straw's elevation, and the appointment of Mr Peter Hain as minister for Europe, as signs of an increasing euro-friendliness by the Prime Minister. The reasoning is that if such sceptical characters as Mr Straw and Mr Hain can be persuaded of the currency's virtues, the battle is as good as won. I am not sure that here the simpler explanation is not the better ­ and that their appointment is a sign less of eurozeal than of simple eurocaution.

Comments