Blunkett is imagining secret plots in the Cabinet where they simply don't exist

The suggestion is that Straw is acting deviously in alliance with Brown, adopting positions to please the Chancellor
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The Independent Online

In recent days we have witnessed headlines conveying a single unlikely message: the Foreign Secretary is in an almighty rage over David Blunkett's recent criticisms of him. Jack Straw is not the type who is easily angered. He is an experienced politician, calm of temperament, who knows a thing or two about ministerial tensions within a Cabinet, having been a special adviser to Barbara Castle during the turbulent 1970s.

In recent days we have witnessed headlines conveying a single unlikely message: the Foreign Secretary is in an almighty rage over David Blunkett's recent criticisms of him. Jack Straw is not the type who is easily angered. He is an experienced politician, calm of temperament, who knows a thing or two about ministerial tensions within a Cabinet, having been a special adviser to Barbara Castle during the turbulent 1970s.

Even so, the reports are accurate. Mr Straw is in a state of fury about David Blunkett's onslaught. Indeed he is so furious that he had a long cathartic phone call with John Prescott, another victim of Mr Blunkett's tirade, over the weekend. During their exchange it was the irascible Mr Prescott who sought to calm down the mild-mannered Mr Straw. Their politest conclusion was that Mr Blunkett was not a team player.

So far Mr Blunkett's barbed observations made to his biographer have been analysed for what they tell us about him. Why did he make the comments about other ministers? What damage will they cause him? Very little attention has been paid to the substance of his remarks. Yet his attack on Mr Straw borders on the sensational. The implication that Mr Straw was an ineffective Home Secretary is damaging enough. More significant is the suggestion that he is acting deviously in alliance with Gordon Brown, adopting policy positions to please the ambitious Chancellor. Mr Blunkett cites the example of Mr Straw's opposition to his plans for identity cards, a policy that was also strongly opposed by Mr Brown. These accusations of opportunism are especially interesting as they echo the private concerns of other senior Blairites, who detect a sinister alliance between Mr Brown and Mr Straw over Europe and more broadly over the Chancellor's leadership aspirations. If the accusations are true, they suggest a relationship between the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary as important as the one formed between Nigel Lawson and Sir Geoffrey Howe against Margaret Thatcher in the late Eighties.

Mr Straw is a more interesting figure than he sometimes seems. He is one of the few cabinet ministers instinctively at ease with governing. Even now most of Mr Straw's colleagues govern nervously, after being out of power for 18 years. Mr Straw's confidence is boosted by the experience of serving under Mrs Castle. He is one of the few ministers who had tasted a whiff of power before 1997, who knew what it was like from the inside. More importantly, he is capable of holding consistently strong views, always helpful in a Government that can be a victim of its own short-term pragmatism.

Indeed, in some ways Mr Straw's views are fairly close to Mr Blair's, even if the Prime Minister has come to share some of Mr Blunkett's suspicions of him. Long ago it appeared as if Mr Straw's predecessor at the Foreign Office, Robin Cook, was more in tune with the Prime Minister. Mr Cook was an ardent pluralist, a supporter of electoral reform and close ties with the Liberal Democrats. He was also a passionate pro-European. Mr Cook used to say he was more Blairite than Mr Blair. There was something in this as in practice Mr Blair has shown himself to be closer to Mr Straw. The current Foreign Secretary has always been a strong opponent of electoral reform and attacks the Liberal Democrats at every available opportunity. He put the case for the abolition of Clause Four long before Mr Blair was leader. When Mr Blair wanted to make sure that the Freedom of Information Act had little to do with freedom of information, he put Mr Straw in charge. Like Mr Blair, Mr Straw believes that governments on the whole should be allowed to govern. Mr Straw also established a reputation, even odder given Mr Blunkett's attack, for being tough on crime. On the whole, Mr Straw delivered for Mr Blair when he was at the Home Office.

But Mr Straw is capable of challenging Mr Blair every now and again, or at least raising questions about prime ministerial policies and strategies. We know from private documents leaked recently to The Daily Telegraph that Mr Straw warned the Prime Minister about the political dangers of his early commitment to support the war against Iraq. It was also Mr Straw who insisted that there should be a vote in Parliament before the conflict, an historic innovation and one that worried Mr Blair.

It is Mr Straw's persistent interest in Parliament that is most distinctive. Evidently Mr Blunkett was angered by Mr Straw's lack of support over ID cards. But I am told Mr Straw's main point in the heated cabinet discussion was that Parliament should have a vote before moving from voluntary to compulsory ID cards. Until last week he had no idea his stance had so angered Mr Blunkett, nor that it was perceived as a conspiracy with Mr Brown.

Similarly Mr Straw has long been a pragmatist on Europe. His views genuinely coincide with those of Mr Brown. Indeed when some senior Blairites began to speculate neurotically about the relationship between Chancellor and Foreign Secretary a year ago, Mr Brown and Mr Straw had not discussed Europe in a private meeting together. They have talked since and agree on most matters, although Mr Brown was less keen on holding a referendum on the Constitution. Mr Straw has viewed Europe with some wariness since his relationship with that passionate anti-marketeer Mrs Castle in the Seventies.

No doubt Mr Straw is capable of reading prevailing political moods and positioning himself accordingly but sometimes politics is less dramatic than it appears even to Mr Blunkett. I do not believe a hugely significant alliance has formed between Mr Brown and Mr Straw aimed at undermining Mr Blair. Mr Straw raised doubts about ID cards for different reasons to the Chancellor and they had not discussed the matter in advance. Mr Straw pushed hard for a referendum on the EU constitution while Mr Brown had his doubts. If Mr Blair had told Mr Straw to forget about his proposal there would have been no referendum. I suspect that Rupert Murdoch was a bigger factor in Mr Blair's mind than Mr Straw when he took that decision. To the suspicion of the Blairites, and indeed Robin Cook, Mr Straw has remained publicly supportive of the war while managing to convey the occasional doubts - but that is partly because the Foreign Office as a whole was overwhelmed by doubt.

As well as the other daunting items on his agenda Mr Blunkett has spent a fair amount of time apologising to his ministerial colleagues. As a result they are a little calmer now. One who is close to Mr Straw insists that "Jack is not on the warpath". Even so this has been Mr Blunkett's big misjudgement. Most obviously he had nothing to gain by his outbreak of candour. But more than that his judgements were on the whole wrong, especially in his politically paranoid assessment of Mr Straw, a figure who like Mr Blunkett is more rounded and complex than is normally assumed. Mr Blunkett's accusations were potentially sensational if only they had been true.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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