During that enjoyable moment late on Thursday night when Jeremy Paxman had a rush of blood to the head and urged his guests to look at pictures of "Neil Kinnock" arriving at his count when he meant Tony Blair, Mr Kinnock, who was in the studio with him, shot back with that familiar, half-repressed giggle: "I should be so lucky." To have watched his successor but one reap many of the benefits of his own heroic, if incomplete, reshaping of the Labour Party must have been bitter-sweet at best. Yet this man who used, absurdly, to be accused by his critics of not knowing how to behave, has been a rare example to all ex-party leaders. Not once has he showed anything but unalloyed delight at the success of Labour since his departure.
Bitter-sweet or not, he can now regard himself as vindicated, albeit in an unusual way, because one of the less noticed features of Tony Blair's reshaping of his Cabinet amid all the discussion of women versus men, Brownites versus Blairites, is that the Kinnockites have suddenly arrived in force. There are now three close former members of Kinnock's inner circle in the Blair Cabinet: John Reid, at Northern Ireland, Patricia Hewitt, at Trade and Industry, and the longest standing Kinnockite of all, Charles Clarke, who becomes party chairman.
This is more, I think, than a mere historical footnote. These are long marchers, people who cannot be taught many lessons in Labour politics, or have to prove that they are more New Labour than the next man or woman, because they yomped behind the banner of modernisation even earlier than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It's a pedigree that builds, or should build, a certain inner self-confidence and independence of mind as well as loyalty.
This is most immediately interesting in the case of Mr Clarke. Some attention has already been paid to the fact that, as the man who told the journalist John Sopel that in retrospect it would have been better for the Blair-Brown relationship had Mr Brown run and been beaten for the leadership in 1994, he doesn't exactly start as the Chancellor's closest comrade. He is a convinced pro-European, which is likely to make him a keen advocate of euro-entry.
But there is rather more to Mr Clarke than this. He has, or should have, the weight to make this communication a two-way street. He doesn't speak in the soundbite jargon of New Labour politics, which will be a mercy. He is prepared to float ideas in public, as he did with hypothecated taxation in the last parliament. And because of his pedigree, he won't be accused of merely sucking up to old Labour if he expresses the real, and sometimes neglected, concerns of the party at the highest level in government. Beside being entrusted with thinking about strategy for mid-term elections and the underlying causes of low turn-out, he will be there to avoid screw-ups like those in the last parliament, the Ken Livingstone and Alun Michael débâcles among them.
This is worth saying because it is a reminder that it can be simplistic to reduce analysis of every appointment to its meaning for the biggest decision of this parliament whether and when to enter the single currency. On the one hand, the Chancellor deeply cautious about early entry has few reliably close allies among the new Cabinet entrants, though rather more among the other government appointees, such as the able and swiftly promoted Douglas Alexander. On the other, the pro-euro Steve Byers has been sent to a department where his views will matter less. And yes, the also pro-euro Robin Cook for reasons that seem to have more to do with change for change's sake rather than some carefully prepared plot of his old enemy Mr Brown has been replaced as Foreign Secretary by Jack Straw, the close and admiring former lieutenant of those warhorses of euroscepticism, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle.
After the initial shock, for which he appears to have been singularly ill- prepared by any prior hints from the centre, Mr Cook may well prove rather good at his new job. He is an outstanding Commons person in a Cabinet not packed with them. And while we should not hold our breath for it under this government, if any minister is able to make the Commons even slightly more robust at scrutinising the executive, it's probably him. (A bouquet, incidentally, is due to Chris Mullin, who uniquely struck a blow for backbench careers yesterday by leaving his junior ministerial post with the aim of returning to select committee chairmanship.) And Mr Straw? Well, not only is he a pragmatist and a loyalist, he's also the only available minister who could have credibly gone to the Foreign Office.
Which brings us back to the euro. Despite a Cabinet tilt against it which will alarm quite a lot of European politicians what has really happened is that the decks have been visibly cleared for what this was always going to be: an issue, perhaps the defining issue, between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. On the one hand is the Brown view that this will almost certainly have to be played long or longish (perhaps even until after the 2004 intergovernmental conference on the EU's future), that the famous economic assessment, while no doubt arguing that there has been clear progress to economic convergence, will need to take into account other factors, including the inferiority of the European Central Bank's remit to that of the Bank of England. What's more, a further argument for caution, that of whether it is sensible to hold a referendum without the support of one major party, could be strengthened by a Portillo leadership (though, conversely, it would be weakened by a deal which admitted pro- Europeans, with the licence to disagree, into the Shadow Cabinet, and even more so in the event of a Clarke leadership.)
Against this is the view attributed, at least by those who are strongly in favour of euro entry, to the Prime Minister, that the ideal moment for a referendum is immediately after the assessment is completed and therefore within the first two years. Evidence for this is said to include beside Blair's gnomic but suggestive remarks during the election campaign an alleged irritation in Downing Street about weekend reports that the Chancellor will use his veto in favour of delay.
If this is Mr Blair's view, then public opinion will have to be fought for. The strong argument that it is no good starting on this until the economic assessment is completed would have to be countered, because at the very least the Government would have to start making the case, as it barely did during the election campaign, for being in favour "in principle" of entry and that can probably be done without violating the principle that it can only be formally recommended when the economics are right.
Nor should politicians wait for the businessmen to make their case for them, any more than those in favour of ERM during the Thatcher years should have waited for businessmen to make their case. There is much, therefore, to be resolved between Chancellor and Prime Minister. And interesting as the appointments in the reshuffle may be including that of the Cook ally and mildly pro-euro Peter Hain as minister for Europe it is not in the end going to help either man to do that.Reuse content