Anyone but businessmen for tennis

"Anyone for tennis?" There must be times, in the midst of never-ending meetings, when Tony Blair longs to be out on a court. Unfortunately for him, his range of opponents is limited. A tennis encounter with any of his Cabinet colleagues, for example, would carry with it a little too much baggage. Stephen Byers or Alan Milburn would spend much of the game calculating whether or not to let Blair win. Would it be better to lose gracefully, or should they beat him in the final game of the final set - to show that they are the sort of youthful young Turks he might approve of? For all kinds of reasons, Gordon Brown would probably want to beat him to smithereens.

No wonder Blair turns to Lord Levy - whose tax affairs have so preoccupied the press in recent days - when he wants to play a set or two. With Cabinet colleagues, even those who were once close friends, prime ministers can have only a working relationship, which may be cordial or intense, sometimes both. But prime ministers can remain friends with business leaders. They often seem to regard multi-millionaires as a relaxing diversion. Once the entrepreneurs have received their preposterous honours - a peerage here, a knighthood there - they do not seek much more from a prime minister. If anything, a prime minister seeks more from them: cash for the party, expertise, uncomplicated friendship.

It does not take a psychiatrist to understand why Harold Wilson stepped away from his warring ministers for drinks with the likes of Lord Kagan. Most of the time, Wilson's manoeuvring mind was focused on seething, draining questions. What the hell to do with George Brown, drunk or sober. Could he risk moving Tony Benn without alienating the left? What was Roy Jenkins up to? In compari-son, drinks with a dodgy manufacturer of raincoats must have been blissful escapism. For Margaret Thatcher, business leaders such as Lord Young brought her "solutions" when he joined the Cabinet, while his more awkward elected colleagues came to her with "problems".

Although this habit of ignoring "problems" ("But prime minister, the poll tax will be politically disastrous") was ultimately her undoing, Thatcher was on to something. It is not only understandable, but also desirable, that prime ministers get outside advice on how to run things. This is especially the case in Britain, with its electoral system that dooms politicians to decades of opposition. In the run-up to the 1997 election, most of Labour's stars became experts in how to present policy but, after 18 years out of office, were not as sure-footed on implementation. Captains of industry filled the gap. Geoffrey Robinson, who cannot be accused of spinning himself a good press, specialised in policy detail, such as the one-off tax on the privatised utilities. Lord Simon brought some business expertise to the Department of Trade and Industry in the early years. Lord Levy has apparently had some success in his curious role as the Prime Minister's personal envoy in the Middle East.

Blair tends to overrate outsiders and underrate colleagues who happen to have been elected. But the degree to which the likes of Lord Levy are part of a new, exclusive Blairite establishment is hugely exaggerated. The opposite is the case. This government has failed to create an omnipotent establishment in the way the Thatcherites managed with ease. "Is he one of us?" became one of Thatcher's defining phrases, as she exploited ruthlessly her powers of patronage. In Blair's case, the question often asked is: "Is he a moderate Conservative?" (Patten, Wakeham, Mellor, Heseltine, Gummer have all benefited from Blair's patronage), or: "Who can we get to fill that job?" The Blairites do not have a supply of "friends" to compare with the never-ending stream of Thatcherites. The PM needs more people to play tennis with, not fewer.

Still, even if we are talking about the few rather than the many, the outsiders - with their access and prominence - carry almost the same obligations as Cabinet members. The High Court ruling that allowed the Sunday Times to print its story on Lord Levy's tax affairs was right about one point in particular. He is in public life. So are all members of the second chamber, and it is a reflection of their sheltered arrogance that some are surprised to be viewed in this way. They are legislators, whether or not they enjoy Prime Ministerial access. At the moment, the rules for peers are far too lenient. They register most of their interests at their own discretion. Around 40 per cent do not bother. In theory, they are meant to declare an interest in debates. Many do not. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is now reviewing the rules. It should come up with some robust proposals.

State funding of political parties would also help to end any actual or perceived dependence on businessmen. Yet Blair has let it be known that this is out of the question, partly because the Daily Mail would portray it as a politics tax. Thus the editor, Paul Dacre, vetoes another sensible policy. He is becoming the most powerful man in the land. Recently, I asked somebody at Conservative Central Office what was behind the Tories' new energetic style. He said: "We read the Daily Mail editorials one day and say the same things ourselves the next." I laughed politely, until I realised he meant it.

While the Mail reigns, both main parties will be dependent on wealthy donors. Curiously, both Wilson and Blair thought they would acquire an added aura by an association with business leaders: such friendships were proof that Labour had become the natural party of government. Although no one is accusing Blair's tennis partner of breaking the law, the lesson that Wilson never learnt still applies. The political risks of courting business leaders nearly always outweigh the benefits.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?