When dangerous liaisons make useful bedfellows

Labour's new allies
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After 18 years of the Tories, it's still a shock to see John Prescott sharing a joke, as the caption writers sadly no longer say, with the Queen Mother at her daughter's golden wedding lunch. The television pictures of the last 48 hours have done a lot to lodge in the collective psyche the image of Labour as the natural party of government. It may mean ministers mingling, as they did yesterday at Westminster Abbey, with a lot of unfamiliar and obscure members of the coffee-drinking monarchies. But the Royal Family still counts for something as a symbol; these are television pictures you couldn't buy.

Nevertheless, there is more to Tony Blair's ringmaster role in yesterday's celebrations than that. First, the Prime Minister's gushing words at yesterday's People's Banquet went way beyond the routinely respectful. Tony Blair's public assumption of an almost Victorian role as royal counsellor, cemented after the death of Princess Diana, is something John Major, let alone Margaret Thatcher, never quite managed. And what's more, his lavishly expressed affection for the Queen is said to be reciprocated. "She loves him," emotes an official who has seen them together. To judge by yesterday's exchanges, that isn't much of an exaggeration. New Labour and the Royal Family clearly have something significant to offer each other, as the Queen came perilously close to hinting yesterday. From Blair, the Royal Family get modernisation and the hope of renewal just when they most need it. From the Royal Family, Blair gets part of something just as big: the chance to connect his party and his Government, more successfully than at any time in Labour history, with the still central element of what used to be called the British Establishment. Even the affection between Harold Wilson - or Harold Macmillan - and the Queen was somehow never quite like this.

It isn't too much to say that this is part of a pattern. For slowly Tony Blair is starting to identify his party with some of those elements of British society with which the centre left has been much less naturally linked in this century than it was in the last. This is a process which may baffle and alarm many active in the Labour Party. But there is a paradox here: in some, though not in all cases, Labour is moving on to ground vacated by the Conservatives during the Thatcher years. Perhaps necessarily, given her agenda, Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives could never wholly rely on large parts of the Church of England, the BBC, the universities, the civil service - even, thanks to Europe, the business elite. And if the new Blair inclusiveness means that he can do so in a way they couldn't, the big question becomes: who is seducing whom?

Though the Prime Minister's most ardent supporters will fiercely deny it, this process may become visible in some imminent decisions on policy. For example, it now looks increasingly likely that he will overrule, or at least substantially modify, the plans fermenting in the Department of Education to end the premium pounds 35m a year which Oxford and Cambridge get and other universities don't. In cold, policy terms, the case for continuing to pay the pounds 35m is scarcely persuasive. The huge assets held by the Oxbridge colleges - getting on for pounds 2bn - and their formidable capacity to raise private funds rather undermine the argument that the premium grant is the only way of preserving their role as elite universities.

To take a wildly different case, the reasons for postponing - to no fixed date - an offer of Government time for a ban on fox-hunting aren't all that convincing either. But that may not quite be the point. It may rather be, to put it bluntly, that in the long term the minuses of protracted, deeply distracting public punch-ups on either of these issues greatly outweigh the pluses. Why make lasting enemies of Oxbridge and its world- wide army of eminent supporters on the one hand, and on the other a formidable coalition of pro-hunters ranging from Michael Heseltine to Lord Justice Sir Richard Scott and John Mortimer, when they could otherwise be useful part-time members of your new consensus?

This may sound unheroic. It becomes less so if its purpose is genuinely to focus on the long-term goals of improving schools and the painfully beleaguered NHS, and closing the gulf between the underclass and the rest of us. Let's suppose, for example, that as part of the programme of welfare reform Blair and Gordon Brown have to face the middle classes with some hard choices about losing some of the benefits they don't need, to help those who do. They are entitled to appeal to the enlightened self-interest of upper- and middle-income Britain by urging them to see that less crime and unemployment improves their quality of life, too; but they will need all the allies they can get.

So the Government has a lot to gain from all this. However, there are caveats. First, rebuilding the link between government and some of the country's most hallowed institutions should not necessarily be confused with an uncritical approach to corporate power; even businessmen need from time to time to be told, as the unions have been until it's coming out of their ears, that they will get fairness but no favours. Nor should building a broad, inclusive coalition stop action against entrenched class division, including action through further constitutional reform. The monarchy still has a popular hold on the country; it will have even more of one if it modernises. But the hereditary House of Lords doesn't. There are no signs of a retreat here; there are even welcome indications that the Government intends to make more of an issue of its plans to start confronting the task of Lords reform which the Wilson government failed to accomplish in the Sixties. Which is just as well; powerful interests in the peerage will fight this to the last trench. But if the Tories really throw themselves into an alliance with the hereditary peers, they will surely this time be on the wrong side of history. Suborn the Establishment by all means. Mobilise it. Even flatter it. Sometimes to govern is to schmooze. Just don't be captured by it.