If I were Tony Blair, I'd watch out for Jack Straw

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The Independent Online

I was interested to see that Mr Tony Blair and his wife both attended the memorial service at St Bride's, Fleet Street, for the late Stewart Steven, formerly editor of The Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard. I knew Steven slightly. Though he possessed many excellent qualities, he was not one for reticence about his more important friends or acquaintances. Not once had he mentioned Mr Blair or, for that matter, his wife to me.

I was interested to see that Mr Tony Blair and his wife both attended the memorial service at St Bride's, Fleet Street, for the late Stewart Steven, formerly editor of The Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard. I knew Steven slightly. Though he possessed many excellent qualities, he was not one for reticence about his more important friends or acquaintances. Not once had he mentioned Mr Blair or, for that matter, his wife to me.

Shortly after he had come to office in 1997, the Prime Minister was conspicuous by his presence at the assorted funerals and memorial services following the deaths of the third Lord Rothermere and Sir David English. He certainly did not know either of them well. But they had both of them been dazzled by him in his period of opposition. They had compared him with Mr John Major, to Mr Major's disadvantage. Steven had, by contrast, been one of Mr Major's few defenders in the press.

Alas, Mr Blair's original investment in the big wheels of Associated Newspapers failed to pay dividends, for unfortunately they had both fallen off the cart. Their successors, Mr Paul Dacre and the fourth Lord Rothermere, did not share their high opinion of Mr Blair. He might retain the admiration or, at any rate, the toleration of Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. But the Mail had flattered to deceive, as the old racing correspondents used to put it. There was nothing more to be done. That was the only conclusion to arrive at where the Mail was concerned.

Was Mr Blair, ever optimistic, trying to rekindle the old flame at St Bride's? I decided to ask No 10. The late editor was, I was told, "an old friend". When I said that he had never mentioned Mr Blair to me, the spokeswoman replied that it was "a very private friendship". So there we are.

The late Philip Hope-Wallace once described memorial services as the cocktail parties of the elderly. Mr Blair has not yet reached an age when he has to attend them merely for the sake of congenial company. He does, however, appear to be in need of friends.

He has lost Ms Anji Hunter to BP, Mr Peter Mandelson to the back benches and Mr Alastair Campbell to The Times, among other enterprises. These include running in the London Marathon and exhibiting himself on public platforms, much as the Rector of Stiffkey, the unfrocked "prostitutes' padre", put himself on display between the wars. The rector was eaten by a lion in a cage on the Golden Mile at Blackpool and, while one devoutly hopes that a similar fate does not befall Mr Campbell, one can only conclude that he was asking for it.

Mr Campbell and Mr Mandelson continue to keep in touch, but it is not the same as having them living above the shop. Indeed, it seems that Mr Mandelson was not consulted or even informed - in the argot of today, he was kept out of the loop - about Mr Blair's change of heart, if such it was, on the European referendum. But Mr Mandelson has decided to make the best of a bad job. My mother taught me that it was wrong to ascribe motives unless there was clear evidence for the attribution. Even so, I would guess that Mr Mandelson has his eye on some desirable Brussels post, as much a public disgrace today as sinecures were in the 18th century, and is accordingly anxious to retain the good offices of the Prime Minister.

To this end, he has formed a temporary alliance with two other former members of the Cabinet, Mr Stephen Byers and Mr Alan Milburn. Last week the three had an article in The Guardian. As none of them should lightly put spade to paper, one can only wonder at the colossal exertions, the Herculean labours, that must have gone towards its composition and final appearance. Its message was: God for Europe, Tony and Our Jobs in some happy future.

Inside the Cabinet, Mr Blair's cheer-leader, waving his pom-poms whenever the opportunity presents itself, and sometimes when it does not, is Dr John Reid. He is an interesting case. I do not know whether he was ever a fully paid-up alcoholic. He was certainly a very heavy drinker. Now he does not touch the stuff. One of the possible effects of giving up drink completely is that the person concerned changes in character, which is something the doctors keep quiet about. For example, Harold Macmillan's son Maurice, himself a Tory minister, was turned from being a reasonably amusing chap into a virtual zombie. With Dr Reid, complete abstention has produced the opposite effect. It has galvanised him. Realising that he who wields the dagger never wears the crown, he has evidently decided that the cooling hand to the fevered brow is the better bet.

There is something else about Dr Reid that we should notice. He is an old Communist. There is, interestingly enough, a clear correlation between former Communism, Marxism or general left-wingery and attachment to New Labour as a concept and to Mr Blair as its leader. Some of the politicians involved have, it is true, gone through an intermediate period of preferment under Mr Neil Kinnock: Mr Charles Clarke, Ms Patricia Hewitt and Mr Mandelson himself being evidence of the durability of the Kinnock connection. What they have in common is that they all started their journey to what Francis Bacon called lucre and profession on the far left of the Labour Party or somewhere even further to the left.

Someone else who falls into this pattern is Mr Jack Straw. There is, however, one difference. Mr Straw is not one of the drum-majorettes. If he does cheer, it is not very loudly. It would be too much to say that he and Mr Gordon Brown have formed an alliance, as some commentators have deduced they have done after the shambles of the referendum. What has happened, rather, is that Mr Straw has found his own voice, while Mr Brown has had it from the beginning. Mr Brown could have stopped Mr Blair's nonsense in Iraq had he wanted to; much as Macmillan, then the Tory Chancellor, stopped Anthony Eden's nonsense at Suez. But Mr Brown chose to lie low, as he still does. Mr Straw, however, is no longer echoing Mr Blair.

The cry of "My George Bush, right or wrong" no longer issues from the Foreign Secretary as it continues to do from the Prime Minister. There is a feeling, inconceivable a few months ago, that over Iraq Mr Straw may prove even more troublesome than Mr Robin Cook ever was. The probability is still that Mr Blair will go when he wants to go, at some time after the election. He may still be the captain of his soul but no longer is he the master of his fate. The most assiduous attendance at all the memorial services in London cannot alter that.

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