How does a real leader deal with rebels?

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Two leaders, two groups of rebels, two stories. Tony Blair, icily angry, cracking the whip; John Major, tediously emollient, offering it back. Over a couple of days this week we have had a black-and-white drama on the subject of political leaders hip which seems to overturn the old conventions.

On the one hand, Blair presents himself in terms that clearly echo the Thatcher era. Think of his words about Clause IV: "I thrive on argument ... I did not launch this debate because it was the easy thing to do. I launched it because it is the right thingto do." Think of his semi-public savaging of Labour MEPs - "infantile incompetence"; "gross discourtesy" - stronger language than the Great She would have used about the Tory wets in the early Eighties.

For months, those of us who have watched Blair closely have been asserting, or warning, that he is a tough so-and-so, that his leadership promises to be a hair-raisingly bumpy ride. Now, in response to a serious threat to his reform project, he has laun c hed the party into the roughest, splashiest white water he can find.

His words cannot easily be taken back. They will not be forgotten by the sentimentalists at whom they were thrown. Attitudes, pro-Blair and anti-Blair, will harden. So Rubicons have been burned, bridges crossed, dies raised and stakes cast (or whatever).

Politics delights in such seemingly decisive moments. They mark the narrative and send messages to the country. Voters are already half-familiar with the "Labour leader who tells his party home truths" story, mainly thanks to Neil Kinnock. Primarily though, Blair was not hoping to impress himself on Middle Britain as a new Kinnock. (Or secondarily, come to think of it, or thirdly.)

Instead he was trying to convey an image of himself as a leader as starkly and damagingly different from John Major's reputation as possible.

What happened was a little piece of theatre. One can imagine a socialist-realist painting in the old style, about 20ft wide, entitled "The Humiliation of the MEPs at Brussels". Now, Blair was certainly cross and the Euro-Brothers had certainly behaved with a lack of tact and discipline - ironically, Labour's 1994 European election success resulted in a wave of unreformed old lags becoming MEPs.

But Blair's harangue wasn't just aimed at them. After all, they hadn't behaved that badly. For politicians, invited by the leader to engage in debate, to advertise in a friendly newspaper to the effect that they support the constitution of the party to which they belong is, no doubt, disgraceful. But it isn't quite treachery.

Blair's other target was Major. He was saying: see me? This is how real leaders behave. And - hey presto! - Major obliged by reminding everyone that he was the other sort. After all the huffing and puffing last year, he offered an olive twig, if not the

full branch, to his Rebel Nine.

Although this helped him to win an important procedural vote, some of the rebels responded with a barrage of gentle mockery. Nick Budgen's scoffing query about how the whipless nine would know about Tory voting plans and so be able "to crawl back on our knees into the party ... in an abject display of loyalty'' did not sound like the words of a man cowed into submission by what Private Eye calls the Prime Minister's special angry voice.

This is all deeply unfair, of course. The rebellion facing Major and the rebellion facing Blair are entirely different. Major is striving to keep his administration alive and needs the votes to do so; if Labour MEPs mattered in the real world to Blair half as much as Tory MPs matter to Major, then the Belgian drama would have been rather different in tone.

Nor do the two issues compare in importance. The Tories' European battle is about hard questions of national power which come to the Commons at regular intervals in the form of immediate propositions.

Mr Major would love to be rude to his tormentors. Indeed, in private, he uses language about them quite as earthy as Blair's words. His withdrawal of the whip was itself a piece of theatre, not unlike Blair's Brussels bollocking. But for a serving Prime Minister with a small majority, these displays of anger are priced pretty high. So, in general, Major's outbursts become known by accident, while Blair's are scripted and formally announced.

His Clause IV battle is most important at a symbolic level. But it is not war - more like a war-game fought out in some Hertfordshire coppice by panting executives with paintguns.

One can go further and speculate that in office, with a smallish majority, Blair might find himself having to indulge in the sort of faintly demeaning manoeuvres that have blighted Major's reputation.

Indeed, in government, his position could be more difficult than Major's is now. Both parties rely on a basic loyalty among those MPs who, for one reason or another, are fated to stay on the back benches - who are beyond the threats and carrots of the whips. In the Tory case the European disagreement, combined with the flattering power of the media, eventually eroded the base of loyalty of a small platoon. It took years to happen; its results have been devastating.

But Labour has a larger group of potential rebels, leftists who know perfectly well that they have no hope of becoming even junior ministers under Blair. As with the Labour MEPs, they start from being less instinctively loyalist than their Tory opposite numbers. And if Blair made it to office, the Campaign Group types would find the same tempting cameras waiting outside Westminster on College Green for them, the same radio invitations, the same crooking finger of national notoriety.

Like the Tory nationalists, they would find that there was an acceptable alternative to sullen and obscure parliamentary loyalism. Labour thoroughly enjoyed the Government's discomfiture earlier on in the week. But were I a shadow minister, the rise of the rebel backbencher is something I would not feel wholly relaxed about.

The conventional answer is that Blair has to win a big majority. Psephology aside, though, the case of the MEPs reminds us that more doesn't necessarily mean more loyal - not in the Labour Party, anyway. No one understands this better than Blair. The only real answer he has is to build up his own position with the electorate, accumulating the capital of trusted national leadership against the day when he too may be forced to negotiate and trim.

That he is certainly doing, with panache and some style. But politics does not reduce to personality. In his days of triumph the strong Opposition leader would be sensible to glance sympathetically at the underlying problems that have tormented Major this winter. For one day - if he's lucky - he might share them.

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