Blair's first term in office

<strong>Servants of the People</strong>

Andrew Rawnsley <em>Penguin Books, 592pp, £8.99</em>

ISB

This is an astonishingly intimate contemporary history of new Labour's first term of office. Its power comes from the access the author had to the key ministers and advisers of the moment, and from the way in which their stories are used to piece together the behind-the-scenes action. From election night itself, then Bank of England independence, through to the Bernie Ecclestone saga, the Good Friday Agreement, the Dome, the fuel crisis, Peter Mandelson's departure, Kosovo and the debate over the euro, each event is described in forensic detail, including near-transcripts of conversations between those at the very top.

Practically all of Rawnsley's information is off-the-record, with the result that the most interesting assertions are attributed merely to, for example, "a person well-placed to know the minister's mind". Rawnsley plays with the readers, dangling morsels in a way that forces them to wonder "is this the minister him/herself? Can it only mean their spouse? Or can the definition stretch to someone working in their office?"

What comes through is the personal, relentless nature of politics that thrusts a group of hardworking individuals - complete with flaws, moments of genius and paranoia - into the limelight to fare as best they may.

By the end of the book, Blair is shown to be ready to put all the experience he's gained so far, plus the money freed up as a result of economic success, to use during his second term to finally transform public services in the way that people want. Completed just before the events of 9/11 and re-read with hindsight, the book now leaves a lingering sense of wistfulness as to what might have been if the war on terror had not engulfed all that came before.

Kitty Ussher is Labour MP for Burnley