The reshuffle smacks of presidential blundering

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The last few weeks have seen a revival of the theory of presidential government at No 10. At the same time the assorted aides, baggage carriers, placemen, placewomen, special assistants and policy advisers - what are generically though misleadingly called spin doctors, misleadingly because among them there are few genuine press officers - have been not so much spinning as rotating like whirling dervishes. The cause of the agitation was the impending reshuffle. But by Wednesday it was clear there was not going to be a reshuffle, or not as you would notice: "Small Earthquake in Downing Street. Not Many Hurt."

There was, it is true, a certain scurrying in the undergrowth of the No 10 garden. But in the garden itself the familiar squirrels darted about, the cats stretched themselves in the sun, while those two trusty old dogs from that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday, Dr Jack Cunningham and Mr Frank Dobson, were still sniffing around.

Not that the stirrings in the undergrowth are entirely without interest. Lord Williams of Mostyn is one of the few Attorneys of modern times to have enjoyed a substantial practice at the Bar. Mr Geoff Hoon (a lawyer likewise) and Mr Peter Hain will strengthen the Foreign Office, where Mr Robin Cook has so far proved a disappointment. Mr Hain will be returning from Wales to the Veldt, responsible for that unhappy continent.

The interesting aspect of Mr Hain's promotion is that, so far from being punished for his recent indiscretions about the need for Labour to pay more regard to the interests of its indigenous native supporters, he is actually being rewarded. Mr Hain adds to the strength of the Government. But if Mr Tony Blair was as tough as he is always telling us, he would have sent Mr Hain to whatever is the equivalent of the Siberian power station (as Under-Secretary to Mr Dobson, perhaps) or else sacked him outright.

As Mr Hain knows about the dark continent, so Mr Hoon knows about the happier but still troubled continent of Europe. He is a convinced Europhile, which no one I have read seems to have noticed. He has certainly read the Maastricht Treaty, several times over, no doubt making notes in the margins. With Mr George Robertson, he led the effective opposition to the Bill incorporating the treaty into our law. This was when John Smith - how long ago it all seems now! - trod a delicate path between opposing the Bill because of its failure to incorporate the social chapter and appearing more European than John Major.

Nor should we forget our departed friends. Both Mr Tony Banks and Ms Glenda Jackson jumped before they were shoved. Both have been linked to the contest for Mayor of London. Mr Banks never wanted to be a minister anyway and was surprised when Mr Blair asked him to take over Sport, a department which Ms Kate Hoey now adorns. She is well qualified for the position not so much because she once won the girls' high jump, the egg- and-spoon race or whatever it was in Northern Ireland as because she was once engaged to teach the young players on the books of Arsenal FC about life and letters - surely as difficult a task as any undertaken by a member of the present administration.

Ms Jackson has done even more extraordinary things in life. She has played a flighty piece who is picked up by a lecherous married man (played by Mr George Segal) and flown off to Spain for a dirty weekend. That was in A Touch of Class, which is reshown surprisingly often considering how out of kilter it is with the censorious spirit of the age. She also appeared in an advertisement for the Hanson Group, and won two Oscars as well. She was one of our few undisputed international stars, out-twinkling the assorted Dames of the present day. Why, I should like to know, is it not Dame Glenda?

Alas, her qualities did not transfer to the stage at Westminster. Her mistake was to expunge any trace of frivolity from her performance. She appeared sour and resentful when she was not like that at all; or so I am told. I have no idea what Ms Jackson is like at home. Still, it is a pity that someone who tried so hard ended up so disappointed.

Her old job as Minister of Transport is being taken over by Lord Macdonald, a former fitter whom I used to know as Gus when he was circulation manager of Tribune. He progressed through journalism and television to become a bit of a capitalist. This qualifies him admirably to be a member of the present government but does not mean he can make the trains run on time. Indeed, the more I look at Mr John Prescott's huge ministry, the more unsatisfactory I think it is.

There was a case for making Mr Prescott Deputy Prime Minister to reassure him that he was a person of pomp and power and that the old Movement was still represented in New Labour. He could then have stuck his new ornament on the mantelpiece and got on with running a department with defined objectives and a reasonable chance of success in attaining them. Instead he insisted on being head of a huge department controlling or, rather, manifestly not controlling activities which had no real connections with one another. Departmental giantism was discredited long ago.

I see, by the way, that my old adversary in the Law Courts, Mr Michael Meacher, retains his post at Environment. He wins golden opinions as a minister but is considered a bit old-fashioned as a politician, which is entirely to his credit these days. He is one of the few people with whom Mr Blair really has been tough, in his case by omitting to put him in the Cabinet. Under party rules, he should have been included because he was a member of the shadow cabinet at the time of the election.

Mr Blair has not been tough with anyone of consequence. On the contrary: ministers - Mr Dobson, Ms Mo Mowlam - have demanded to be retained in their posts, and their wish has been granted. There is no reason why Mr Blair should not have kept them where they were, though the time is approaching when Mr Dobson is going to run out of excuses. When that happens Mr Blair will doubtless take up the position he has already adopted in part, and make the excuses on behalf of Mr Dobson - as he has done too on behalf of Mr David Blunkett but not of Mr Prescott. The only solution is to renationalise the railways. But for that you have to turn to the Liberal Democrats.

Nor is there any reason why Mr Blair should have shifted Ms Mowlam and Mr Dobson merely to demonstrate what a tough prime minister he was. He looks weak not because he failed to discipline these two but because he failed to extinguish the speculation which was burning like a barbecue. He could simply have instructed Mr Alastair Campbell to keep the bagmen in order and authoritatively to inform the gentlemen of the press that only a small reshuffle in the lower regions was being contemplated.

Instead the Government seemed to be toying with the papers as James Callaghan did over the election in autumn 1978. The papers never really forgave Lord Callaghan. My guess, however, is that they will prove more indulgent towards Mr Blair and, round about October, tell us once again what a truly presidential prime minister he is.

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