Social democracy or just soap opera?

Blair is right in thinking personality clashes and petty jealousies are silly. Yet he can't ignore them
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For more than a year, Tony Blair has been periodically warned that the greatest threat to a new Labour administration may come not from the money markets or the Conservative benches or the press or even from left-wing rebels, but from the poisoned relationships among his own senior colleagues. New Labour is a traditional socialist party in one respect at least - its compulsive unfraternity.

That Gordon (Brown) doesn't like Peter (Mandelson) and that Robin (Cook) isn't keen on either Gordon or Peter, and that John (Prescott) has grave reservations about Gordon and Peter and Robin - and so on - has been the small change of Labour gossip for ages. It hasn't got out of hand. So far, it hasn't affected policy. But it has been a perpetual distraction.

Blair himself is culpable in not taking enough notice of these things. He is not much interested in the pecking order around him - who is trying to suck up, who's feeling threatened. He has worried about improving his relations with Gordon Brown ever since the leadership battle. But by and large he is not sensitive to the egos around him. As one shadow minister put it to me a few weeks ago: ''He thinks all these things are silly and he just doesn't notice them.''

Silly or not, after the eruption of publicity about Brown and Mandelson's tiff, Blair has come to realise that it matters. MPs and staff are being firmly reminded that no one, other than the leader, is more important than the triumvirate of Brown, Cook and Prescott. Blair's people express irritation at the idea of a Brown-Mandelson grudge match being portrayed as a contest of heavyweight equals; yesterday I was briskly told that the Shadow Chancellor cannot be compared with a relatively new MP, however friendly he was with the leader and however eminent he had been as director of communications.

These are deep waters. It would be amazing if Blair pushed Mandelson away from him - and dangerous. They are too close. But if Blair becomes Prime Minister, then his relationship with Mandelson is bound to change, just as Blair's ascent to the Labour leadership changed his relationship with Brown. And what is happening now is an early sign of that.

In Number 10, Blair will be surrounded by a different hierarchy of officials. Where in opposition the circle of influence around him has been fluid and informal, in power it will become rigid and sharper edged. Such, at least, has been the experience of every previous prime ministership. In these circumstances, Mandelson will become if not just another minister, then at least another minister. I suspect that he will flourish. But he will flourish differently.

For Peter Mandelson to change his role is one thing; he is already doing that. But the criss-cross of personal dislikes and jealousies is far more widespread than his coldness with Brown. There are great Scottish feuds. There are female feuds. There are class feuds and black feuds and Welsh feuds.

It is all, in short, exactly like the average playground. And certainly, the rivalries Blair will have to struggle with are no worse than those that divide the Conservatives. In some ways they are easier. There is less of a gap between, say, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook on public spending than between the current Chancellor and the Cabinet's right-wingers on the same subject. (Indeed, if there are rumblings in the Labour camp about Brown being over-assertive, they should look over the fence at Kenneth Clarke's current behaviour on taxation. That's robust for you.)

But the Labour feuds are given an edge of bitterness by the long years of doing nothing much. The tedious disappointments of opposition sap the morale and make it hard to keep one's sense of perspective. The rows are not primarily political in the sense of ideological. But left to fester, they will have highly political results. If Labour reaches power, these will, after all, be people in big jobs, spending large amounts of public money. Their tiffs will no longer smoulder harmlessly in the Commons tearoom; they will flare through the corridors of power, ''geared up'', as they say in the City, to the tune of millions of taxpayers' pounds.

And Labour has been here before. Blair's nightmare is that New Labour will, in power, closely resemble the old Labour world of the Wilson governments described by Richard Crossman in his diaries. It is hard now to remember just how shocking they seemed when they first came out in the 1970s, seemingly reducing cabinet government to the level of, ''Jim sneaked to Marcia, who told Harold that Tony was furious about the fact that Hugh had never trusted Roy, who ...'' A teacher told me at the time that the reputation of British government would never recover.

And it didn't, really, though the Crossman revelations now seem tame by comparison with what followed. We've been through the tumult of the Thatcher cabinet, Tony Benn's memoirs, Yes, Minister, Alan Clark's diaries, and the leaks of John Major's salty private descriptions of his colleagues. We have been educated numb about the longeurs, personality clashes and private bitchery of politics - just office politics, perhaps, but played out by people of abnormally powerful personality, ambition and drive.

Even so, Crossman's diaries still mark an important moment in the developing understanding of British politics. They broke deeper into the heart of cabinet government than anything by any political scientist. Crossman's ruthless and exhilirating smashing of traditional taboos about discretion and outward loyalty changed the way journalists saw the game and, therefore, how voters see it, too. He helped to kick open the door to personality- based lobby journalism, which concentrates more than is ideal on trivial spats and rows and less on policy; to that extent, Crossman is an author of our gossipy political culture.

It is easy to see him as a degrading influence. He certainly made life harder for politicians and easier for newspapers. But the innocence lost was largely the innocence of voters who, before, had known too little about how Whitehall and Westminster worked. It was not dignified. But it was honest, or at least more honest than the pompous sonorities of most political memoirs, or the self-justifying windiness of Harold Wilson's own books.

Crossman, though, wasn't simply the first modern minister to write about cabinet-level politics for publication in a certain way. He was a Labour politician writing about particular Labour colleagues and Labour governments. Because the big story of the Wilson years was disillusionment, Crossman's story of petty and vindictive feuding had special resonance.

This is why a revival of Crossman-era bickering would be so particularly damaging to a Blair-led government. It would be such an easy story to write, soap opera not social democracy. The country would find it vaguely familiar. Critics from right and left would be triumphantly vindicated. However trivial, it would tell Britain that this was an administration without central purpose, driving itself into the sand, just like Wilson's. After years of lecturing the back benches about discipline, it is time for Labour's high command to practice a little better what they so eloquently preach.