Labour teetotallers find the cellar full of wine

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The Independent Online
The story goes, and it seems likely enough, that Mr Peter Mandelson was watching television on election night when the Stroud result came through. The victor was Mr David Drew. "How on earth did that chap manage to get through your net, Peter?" a fellow-watcher asked, or words to this effect. Though at 45 Mr Drew is not exactly ancient, he is it seems an example of Old Labour, on that account antipathetic to Mr Mandelson and his friends. "I never thought he'd win," Mr Mandelson is supposed to have replied, "so I didn't bother to get his name off the list."

If so, Mr Mandelson was pitching his expectations quite low. For the swing of 11 per cent at Stroud was well below that in numerous other constituencies up and down the land. An old acquaintance of mine, whom I had never expected to see at Westminster any more, I suspect, than he had expected to see me - in fact I had not realised he was even a candidate - won a seat in Kent with a swing of 15 per cent. He told me he had suffered a large drop in income, was now over-mortgaged and was accordingly selling his house in north London to buy a cheaper one in the constituency.

I was about to advise him to hang on to his London house and try to reschedule his mortgage because the house would appreciate in value and he might have no further interest in the constituency in five years' time. But then I thought no. He was a fully grown man. It was none of my business. So, unusually, I held my tongue.

The Labour members who find themselves in the position of my acquaintance run well into three figures. But for the last few months, May, June and July, there has been a suspension by most of them of rational calculation. Mr Tony Blair, they thought - were encouraged to think, not least by papers that had formerly supported the Conservatives - would be in power for ever and ever. They thought this because of the almost palpable fund of public good will for Mr Blair.

Then came the result of the Uxbridge by-election. Such had been the show of passion, certainly of harmony, during Mr Blair's honeymoon with the voters that the smart Labour money was on the imposed candidate, Mr Andrew Slaughter, just to pull it off. Indeed Mr Blair, breaking the usual practice of prime ministers, went to the constituency to put in an appearance on his candidate's behalf.

It is not quite right to say that such a visit was unprecedented. In 1962 Harold Macmillan returned to his old seat, Stockton, to lend his support to the Conservatives in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Labour candidate, Lord (then Mr William) Rodgers, from retaining the seat for Labour. But on the whole prime ministers keep well away from by-elections. In retrospect it was probably a mistake for Mr Blair to turn up at this one. It was certainly a mistake to impose Mr Slaughter on the local party and jettison Mr David Williams, who had come within 724 of dislodging the now deceased Conservative with a swing of 13 per cent. It seemed ungrateful to Mr Williams, to say the least.

Mr Blair's apparatchiks are now putting it about that the decision to have a new candidate was not taken by him but by the by-election sub-committee of the National Executive. Moreover, both he and Mr John Prescott were opposed to the decision. That is what we are now told. I am inclined to echo the Duke of Wellington when he said that, if you will believe that, you will believe anything. But if Mr Slaughter really was imposed on the constituency not only against its own wishes but against Mr Blair's as well, we can only conclude that his control of his party is not as comprehensive as we had been led to suppose, not least by Mr Blair himself.

The result means that Labour's majority is what it was after the general election, 177 (with the Speaker included as one of the 659 members but not as a Labour MP). There is no arguing with the brute force of a majority of this size. Interestingly enough, most of New Labour's attitudes were formed about 10 years ago, at Lady Thatcher's high tide, when she had a majority which was not as great as Mr Blair's today but was into three figures,144 after 1983 and 102 after 1987.

The organisations that were established in those years, notably Charter 88, and the policies that were framed, all assumed the oppressive nature of a large parliamentary majority and a strong centralised government. They assumed likewise - though no one was tactless enough to say this in so many words - that Labour, irrespective of whether it was rechristened New Labour, would never find itself in the same commanding position. A small majority or no majority at all, with consequential deals with Liberals, Nationalists, assorted Irishmen: this was the best that could realistically be hoped for. Lord Skidelsky went so far as to proclaim confidently in the Spectator that Labour was finished and would never hold office again.

Mr Blair now finds himself in the position of someone who had decided to renounce all strong drink but finds he has been left a cellar of fine wine by a rich relation - in this case, the electorate. What is he to do? Stick to his pledge, or have a binge? Mr Blair is doing as most sensible people would. He is compromising. He is temperate but has not become completely abstemious either. Thus Mr Paddy Ashdown is being given a glimpse of the frilly black underwear of power. And all the constitutional reforms (with the possible exception of Lords reform) remain in place, though Lord Irvine has informed us that no judge will be allowed to over-ride a statute because he thinks it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

In other areas, however, Mr Blair and his colleagues have shown distressing signs of majoritarianism, which as a disease of governments is closely allied to mandatitis. The latter affliction takes the form of saying: "We were elected with a huge majority. The Slaughter of the Firstborn Bill was specifically mentioned in our manifesto. Therefore we have a clear mandate for this vital reform."

As it happens, I can find no reference in the manifesto to the measure in question. Nor can I see any mention of Lord Simon of Highbury in the document. What I read is: "We will clean up politics ... the Conservatives are afflicted by sleaze." Lord Simon is no doubt the most honest, honourable and public-spirited of men. Nevertheless his retention of his BP shares was manifestly contrary to Questions of Procedure for Ministers as set out when he assumed office three months ago:

"A Minister should ... review his or her investments and, if it seems likely that any of them might give rise to an actual or apparent conflict of interest, they should be disposed of... If ministers have substantial investments covering a wide range of interests, such that it might be difficult to judge the likelihood of actual or apparent conflict of interest, they should consider, as an alternative to disposal, transferring the interests to a blind trust."

Mr Blair is now behaving as Mr John Major used to. Indeed, he is behaving worse, in that he is threatening an action for defamation. He should stop blustering, remembering always that, as Uxbridge reminds us, what goes up can also come down.