Shortly before he died Roy Jenkins offered some sympathy to a group of political columnists. Over a drink or two he suggested that it must be a peculiar challenge to write columns when there were only two interesting personalities dominating the political scene. Naturally he was referring to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Unused to sympathy of any kind, let alone from such a revered source, the columnists opened up. During my cathartic response I told him that sometimes, as a matter of policy, I attempted to write for several weeks in succession without referring to Blair or Brown, but it was difficult. Quite often one of them, or both of them, crept in.
This week I have failed already. There they are in the first damned paragraph. As my colleague Alan Watkins observes disapprovingly on the next page there is no escape. Some columnists hail Blair. Some hail Brown. Some portray the feud as a soap opera between two cartoon characters. Others report with greater accuracy a more subtly nuanced relationship. Some of us strive with little success to give other players and issues a look in. The columnist's dilemma has broader relevance for a single reason. It tells us something about the nature of this government that whatever the policy area or political personalities, soon you are drawn back to only two men, possibly with a bit of Peter Mandelson thrown in.
Jenkins was comparing the unique dominance of the Blair-Brown regime with the era when he was one of several ministerial titans: Benn, Crosland, Crossman, Healey, Foot, Williams, Owen and several others. Each of them could fill a column or two on a regular basis.
These titans did not necessarily govern with great success. Arguably they did not govern with much success at all. Nor is it the case that the current crop of ministers and the growing crop of former ministers lack the potential to make waves. In their different ways Straw, Blunkett, Clarke, Hewitt, Cook and Short are figures of significance in their own right. But that is part of the problem. They do not represent much more than their own substantial selves.
Jenkins and his contemporaries represented groups within their party, and could not be easily ignored by a prime minister or a chancellor. The titans had followers or personified a coherent set of ideas that demanded prime ministerial attention. The relationship between prime minister and chancellor was central, of course, but it was not all that mattered by any means.
I am not suggesting that Blair should become misty-eyed with nostalgia for the old structures and divisions in his party. His relationship with Brown is not that bad. At times the old absurd constraints on Labour prime ministers made governing almost impossible. There is a tragi-comical moment in Tony Benn's diaries when he describes Jim Callaghan - the prime minister at the time - being forced to attend a lengthy meeting of his party's National Executive Committee. The meeting took place on the day of an even bigger economic crisis than usual: sterling was sinking while inflation was soaring. Getting redder by the minute, Callaghan finally exploded: "Why don't we lock the doors and meet in a never-ending session?"
Now a Labour government has moved from one extreme to another. In the 1970s Harold Wilson, and then Callaghan, had to take the following into account as prime ministers: the entire cabinet, the fearsome National Executive Committee, the trade unions, MPs, activists and the party conference. Blair has to deal with Brown. Brown has to deal with Blair. No wonder relations become highly charged, with sides being taken almost irrationally at times. The current government is closer in organisation to Conservative administrations. The relationships at the top are all that really matters.
There is much talk about the decline of cabinet government. But that decline is not inevitable. Partly it is up to the cabinet. To take an extreme example, according to my calculations based on a range of private conversations, I believe the majority of the Cabinet was either opposed to the war against Iraq or had serious doubts. They could have stopped Mr Blair going ahead with his war had they had the inclination to do so. I am told a brief Cabinet discussion on Iraq took place in February of last year, a few weeks before Blair almost certainly made a commitment to President Bush at their summit in Crawford that he would back a war. After that, Blair was locked into a course from which there was no escape. But what if ministers had spoken out earlier? Over Iraq the Cabinet could have saved Blair from himself.
Instead, the understandable hunger for unity and loyalty prevailed. Labour lost four elections in a row partly because of visible divisions. John Major was also slaughtered because his party was so obviously divided over Europe. But now we have the curious situation of ministers united around their fearful silence, while New Labour's founding trio - Blair, Brown and Mandelson - fall out in semi-public, with the media going justifiably bonkers because it knows that they are the only figures that matter.
What a reversal of roles from the early days of New Labour when Blair-Brown-Mandelson would scrutinise every speech and interview conducted by their colleagues for hints of dissent. Here is one example of what it used to be like. As Transport spokesman, Michael Meacher found that his speech at the 1996 Labour conference had been so ruthlessly edited in advance by aides of the trio that this was virtually all he had left to say: "I support our policies on Transport. Thank you and good night." Now Mandelson, in front of 20 journalists, bemoans an obsessed Brown for outmanoeuvring a weak Blair. They are the ones who are advertising their divisions.
As I argued last week, Blair and Brown are not as divided over the euro as they think they are. I have heard Blair argue in private and in public about the need for reforms in the eurozone with the same passion as Brown did last week in his speech to the CBI. The difference between them is that from his prime ministerial perspective Blair has to keep a permanent sense of momentum, to show he is serious about taking Britain to the heart of Europe, whereas Chancellor Brown seeks the stability that comes from ruling out a referendum in this Parliament.
This should be a manageable divide, but it is all getting too intense. Both of them would benefit more if they had to take into account individuals and institutions other than themselves. We need some more ministerial titans. That would be healthy for the country, the Government and the readers of columns. It would also be healthy for Blair and Brown.Reuse content