Mr Blair and the great glowerer

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The Independent Online

In his memoirs, one of the better products of that era, Cecil Parkinson informs us that immediately after her fall, an un-named colleague said to Margaret Thatcher: "We are going to pin regicide on Heseltine." She replied: "Oh no, it wasn't Heseltine. It was the Cabinet." Lord Parkinson writes that "it was said without the slightest rancour. It was, to her, a simple statement of fact."

It is doubtful whether the episode, from which the Conservative Party has yet to make a full recovery, was quite so simple. Francis Bacon tells us in one of his essays that "it were infinite to judge causes, or the causes of causes". So it was on this occasion. If it had not been for Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech, Michael Heseltine would not have stood. And if it had not been for the poll tax – and the now forgotten loss of Eastbourne to the Liberal Democrats – the backbenchers would not have voted for Lord Heseltine in numbers sufficient to force a second ballot from which, in the event, Lady Thatcher withdrew. Even so, she was right: it was not Lord Heseltine who brought her down by standing against her but, rather, the Cabinet by refusing to support her.

In the past few weeks I have written several times that, under the Labour Party's new rules, Mr Tony Blair cannot be challenged by a socalled stalking-horse candidate with 83 signatures in his pocket. When Labour is in office, such a contest can take place only after an affirmative card vote at the party conference. This has led some to conclude that the Prime Minister can sit back and take no notice of anybody until the next general election and, if he wins, for a further five years or such time as he chooses to become Secretary-General of the UN or whatever other job takes his fancy.

But it is not quite like that. Mr Blair's choices are limited by his backbenchers and by his Cabinet. Before he reaches the last fence he can even be removed by the Cabinet. The new rules are fairly clear about what happens in these circumstances: the Cabinet and the National Executive Committee jointly decide who is to act as party leader and Prime Minister until an election can be arranged. For a time, we should probably have Mr John Prescott in the saddle. I am not saying it is going to come to that: merely that Mr Blair cannot do exactly as he likes.

This is not, I know, the fashionable view. There is something about the political classes, particularly those of a progressive disposition, which makes them enthralled by the news that they are being run by Mr Blair, Mr Jonathan Powell and Mr Alastair Campbell, even if Mr Gordon Brown is a glowering presence in the background – and that apart from these, possibly Mr Ed Balls as well, no one else counts for anything. They lament this state of affairs. But they love to be told about it all the same.

There is an analogy with the delight that people from more or less the same group take in being solemnly informed that they are being manipulated by public relations, the advertising industry or what-have-you. This thrill is similar to the one provided by horror movies or by other, more questionable forms of adult entertainment. It accounts for the uniformly warm critical response accorded the BBC2 television series The Century of the Self.

Likewise with the theory of prime ministerial government. It also elicits an excited response. Academics, who tend to recognise a good thing to get on to when they spot one, write learned articles showing organisational changes within No 10. If I were asked to locate the source of the theory, I would suggest the election of J F Kennedy as US President in 1960 and our incorporation of a similar concept into this country. Lacking a suitably glamorous person, we went for an easily imitated idea instead.

Historical analysis shows that Prime Ministers are dubbed "presidential" if for a time, at any rate, they are reasonably successful; possess large majorities; and preferably, though not necessarily, have won several elections. Thus Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and, now, Tony Blair have all been called presidential at some time or other. Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath, James Callaghan and John Major were never so described.

It would be true historically but uninformative analytically to point out that the theory rises and falls according to the decade. It surfaced with Macmillan in the 1960s; reached it apogee with Lady Thatcher in the 1980s; is now set to surpass that level with Mr Blair in the 2000s. But in the intervening decades, with Sir Alec, Sir Edward, Lord Callaghan and Mr Major, it fell into desuetude.

The recently silenced Lady Thatcher was the most commanding of them all; only now in the process of being overtaken by Mr Blair. But in 1990 she was there one minute, gone the next –poof! – in a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke, like the demon king in a pantomime. The signs are that Iraq will be Mr Blair's poll tax but that, unlike Lady Thatcher, he will withdraw just in time. Wilson had a similar experience in 1969 when the outraged backbenchers and a shaky Cabinet forced him and Barbara Castle to withdraw their proposals for trade union reform in In Place of Strife. Then the opposition inside the Cabinet was led by Lord Callaghan, who was, indeed, expelled from Wilson's inner grouping on that account.

It is doubtful whether his successor, Mr David Blunkett, would follow his example today. I do not know to what extent, if at all, Mr Blair was recently responsible for puffing up Mr Blunkett's chances of succeeding him – a balloon that has popped as if it had been decorating a children's party. But Mr Blunkett remains Mr Blair's creature. Indeed, dishing out the gongs at last year's Spectator parliamentary awards, he rebuked the assembled journalists for showing insufficient appreciation of their great leader at No 10.

There is a sense, obviously, in which all ministers are the Prime Minister's creatures. But some are more creature-like than others. There are several I would not take for granted if I were Mr Blair, which thank the Lord I'm not, sir: Mr Prescott, Mr Robin Cook, Mrs Margaret Beckett, Ms Clare Short (it will take more than a prime ministerial lecturette to close her down), Mr Alistair Darling, Mr Andrew Smith and Lord Williams of Mostyn.

Nor is it at all evident that the most obvious recent beneficiary of his patronage, the old Kinnockite and new "party chairman" Mr Charles Clarke, will automatically be on his side. Towering over all is the Great Glowerer himself, Mr Brown. And Mr Blair is certainly not going to take him for granted.