The bastards nurse their wrath

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is a patronising bastard. What's more, Brian Wilson, the new UK minister of state for industry and energy, is "a liability" who, when supposed to be in charge of African affairs at the Foreign Office, spent too much time in Dublin. We have all this on the authority of Scotland's First Minister, Henry McLeish - and we know that Helen Liddell, the Secretary of State for Scotland and Reid's Cabinet colleague, concurs.

This unflattering exercise in peer assessment cannot be denied, because McLeish and Liddell were recorded while they waited, miked-up, for a radio interview. Their indiscretions were broadcast to the nation. Yes, Scotland has its very own "bastardgate", uncannily reminiscent of John Major's indiscretions about some of his Tory colleagues in the early 1990s.

The two Labour ministers have the excuse that it was the morning after the election. What is more astonishing is the cant and hollow indignation that followed. As with the Prescott punch, there was shock that politicians should be human, horror that they should be honest, and glee at the evidence of deep-seated divisions between Labour at Holyrood and Labour at Westminster. Everyone seems to forget that Scottish Labour has been anything but a happy band of brothers and sisters; and that politicians of the same party are capable of deep personal hatreds; and that, even if they are best friends, it does not prevent them from being jealous and suspicious of each other.

Liddell, a long-time ally of Reid's, was quick to contact him and restore their relationship. McLeish had more difficulty. Reid wouldn't take his calls and, after a few brief words with Wilson, the First Minister found himself talking to the dialling tone.

Publicly, both insulted parties took a lofty attitude, but anyone who knows them for the political bruisers they are also knows that both have long memories and, like Burns's "sulky, sullen dame", will nurse their wrath to keep it warm. Reid's friends warned that they will be keeping a sharp eye out for further clangers and that, the way things are going, McLeish will suffer "political death by a thousand gaffes". The First Minister's off-the-cuff delivery is akin to that of President George W Bush, and he has been dubbed McCliche - or, in earthier language, he is said to talk "McLeishite".

But the First Minister remains in a strong position. He has no obvious rival and, with just two years until the Scottish election, there is not enough time for one to establish their position.

Prior to the general election, Scottish Labour MPs bleated that the fumbles of the McLeish administration would cost them seats at Westminster and help the Scottish National Party. In fact, Labour held every seat with increased majorities, even in what seemed the most vulnerable marginals. If any Scottish leader has been weakened, it is the SNP's John Swinney, whose party won fewer votes than in 1997 and lost a seat to the Conservative Party, thus ending Scotland's Tory-free status.

McLeish sprang one other surprise after the election: contrary to forecasts, he did not sack or demote ministers he believed had been undermining him. It was said that he would clip the wings of the Minister for Education and former leadership contender, Jack McConnell; of the mettlesome Minister for Enterprise, Wendy Alexander; and of the Minister for Health, Susan Deacon, who has been openly sceptical about McLeish's promise to provide free care for the elderly. They all remain in place, and McConnell retains his pet additional responsibility for external affairs, particularly Europe.

Many people think that Deacon's caution over free care for the elderly is understandable, because it would put enormous strain on her budget, which is already under pressure to deliver Scottish NHS reforms and reductions in waiting lists. Moreover, the Scottish Executive is now in a worrying dispute with the owners of 800 private nursing homes, who demand a £50-per-resident-per-week increase and say the offer of £4-£6 is "derisory".

McLeish's only change has been to give more muscle to Angus MacKay, whose renamed Department of Finance and Central Services will scrutinise his colleagues' spending plans. MacKay's job is to find the money for McLeish's growing list of spending commitments that are out of step with the rest of the UK: increased student finance, £380m for teachers' pay rises, £30m assistance to the fishing industry and £100m a year to fund personal care for the elderly.

A Scottish Parliament committee is investigating the cost and ramifications of that last commitment and is due to report early next year, but any sign of welching on old people would be catastrophic for the 2003 election. The First Minister is likely to continue talking "McLeishite" but, if he goes, it won't be because of something he says. It will be over what he does - or doesn't do.

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