From the 1997 election archive: Dial M for Mandelson

Harriet Harman, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw ... where did their cabinet careers start out? This overview of Tony Blair's very first appointments was published in our May 1997 special edition of the magazine.

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For a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair has been in the unusual position of not being preoccupied with political balance when selecting his cabinet. Harold Wilson spent hours assessing whether the left and right were properly represented in his government – a Tony Benn here, a Roy Jenkins there. For Blair it was much more a question of marrying ability and expertise to the available briefs. The inclusion of Gavin Strang at Transport illustrates the point: he was rewarded for a decent “beef war”.

Blair did not have a free hand. Having insisted that he would abide by the party rule obliging him to give cabinet status to shadow members, his only room for manoeuvre was to exclude some, on the grounds that fewer places were available in the real cabinet. Hence the fate of Michael Meacher and Tom Clarke.

But compared with the last Labour cabinet, or indeed the last Tory one, the ideological divisions are small. Differences are based more on personal rivalries and tensions than any clear left/right divide.

Soft-left ministers or non-Blairites – those who would take a more relaxed view on public spending and a less pragmatic approach to issues such as privatisation – can just about be identified. They include Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and responsible for Environment and Transport, David Blunkett, Education and Employment, Margaret Beckett, Trade and Industry, Chris Smith, National Heritage, Clare Short, International Development, Gavin Strang and Ron Davies, Welsh Secretary.

But even here the lines are blurred. Blunkett has shown himself to be a highly valued pragmatist. With a big following in the constituencies, Blunkett was the pivotal figure who ensured that Kinnock’s controversial policy review was carried through in the late 1980s. Then he changed the direction of his education policies when Blair sent his son to an opted-out school. He was planning to abolish such schools up to that point. The switch from structures to standards was carried out with such aplomb that Blair regards Blunkett as a star.

Beckett, too, has shown a remarkable capacity to reflect the prevailing mood. She is remembered as a fervent Bennite in the early 1980s. But it is too easily forgotten that, when she was shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, she was ferociously tough on public spending pledges. She once said to me, anticipating victory in 1992, that if ministers came up to her with proposals which implied spending increases the discussion would be brief. “I would just say no”. This was before the invention of “Iron Chancellor” Brown. Brown voted for Beckett when she stood for the deputy leadership in 1994.

Prescott has been uneasy at times. His lowest point was last summer, when Tony Blair announced his opposition to several strikes without consulting Prescott. At that point he appeared to feel excluded from the inner court. But his instinct is to be loyalist. He is unlikely to be part of any co-ordinated ministerial attempt to change policy.

Robin Cook’s allies, such as Peter Hain and Roger Berry, are outside the cabinet. He has a decent relationship with Prescott, but there have been tensions with Clare Short – who in some ways has a similar political outlook to Cook – over the definition of Short’s cabinet brief.

In truth, Short is closer to Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the NS interview in which she attacked the entourage around Blair, she made it clear that she excluded Brown from the charge. In common with Frank Field, she has hopes that Brown will be a radical chancellor. Field himself will be a crucial player on welfare reform, occupying the junior slot below Harriet Harman, Social Security Secretary.

Brown has an awkward relationship with Prescott and Cook, whom he rightly suspects of wanting his job. But Brown’s unpopularity with some of his colleagues is not just a question of personal rivalries. He doggedly stuck to rigid spending plans during his five years as shadow chancellor. It paid off electorally, but greatly restricted the scope of his front-bench colleagues. Treasury spokesmen, and indeed chancellors, are rarely popular in the Labour Party.

Brown has more freedom than anyone else in the new cabinet. He was able to name his own ministerial team after the briefest of consultations with Blair, whereas Cook found himself surprised by the idea that David Simon, chairman of BP, might be drafted into the Foreign Office team. Alastair Darling, Brown’s choice as Chief Secretary, was not an elected member of the shadow cabinet.

In opposition, Brown had particular difficulties with Chris Smith. Tensions were greatest over Smith’s social security review, when he was accused of devising proposals which implied spending increases, rather than the reverse. Brown wanted Smith away from a high-spending department such as health. More positively, Smith was regarded as a successful shadow Heritage spokesman. In a recent NS interview he said it would be the most enjoyable job in government.

He is certainly more in tune with the arts than Jack Cunningham, who held the brief in opposition. Cunningham was ridiculed after a newspaper interview in which he appeared to have little interest in either film or theatre. In a subsequent interview with the NS he overcompensated by listing defensively all the plays he had recently seen. But he is one of the few former ministers at Blair’s disposal. He was also a parliamentary aide to Jim Callaghan, so has inside experience of Downing Street. Blair rates him.

But in the most significant change from the shadow cabinet portfolio is the move of Donald Dewar to Scottish Secretary. The Scottish Labour Party remains in a more turbulent and divided state than elsewhere. Dewar is a popular figure and a natural conciliator. He is much better placed to deliver a “yes, yes” vote in the referendum and the Scottish Parliament than George Robertson, who never recovered from the referendum rows of last summer. In a recent NS interview he admitted to contemplating resignation.

The appointment of Ron Davies to the Welsh Office illustrates, along with Clare Short’s inclusion, that so-called “gaffes” can be forgiven. Davies is a republican who once had to apologise for making his anti-royal views public.

Jack Straw, Home Secretary, and Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland, have also suggested that the monarchy should base itself on the more informal Scandinavian model. Coincidentally they were both members of Blair’s campaign team when he won the leadership. Straw is a more rounded political figure than his current image suggests. He was one of the first to propose the abolition of Clause Four and has a liberal record on gay rights. But in a less subtle way than Blair he developed the “tough on crime” half of the sound-bite without addressing the “causes” with matching enthusiasm.

The larger majority makes it easier to place some of those who are not obviously part of the inner circle. Anna Taylor, Leader of the House, was regarded as a failure when she was Education spokeswoman, too readily agreeing to the wishes of the teachers’ unions. The cabinet brief is less daunting when Labour will be so dominant in the Commons. David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is seen as competent but unexciting. With no great radical upheaval planned for the NHS, Frank Dobson is a safe pair of hands. He has “shadowed” Health before in the 1980s. All three could be early casualties in a reshuffle, as Blair starts to talent-spot in his massive new parliamentary party.

In some ways Lord Irvine, Lord Chancellor, will be more influential than any minister sitting in the Commons. His unique position places him above the political fray. He introduced Blair to Cherie when they were pupils in his Chambers in the late 1970s. Blair spoke nearly daily to him during the opposition years and Irvine supervised personally the writing of the election manifesto.

Arguably, Peter Mandelson will be more influential than nearly all the cabinet ministers. His presence in the Cabinet Office as Minister without Portfolio will allow him to range across government policies. Officially he is responsible for the “strategic implementation and presentation” of government policy. But such a brief is vague enough for Mandelson to make of it what he chooses. He will sit on cabinet committees, but, as a non-cabinet member, cannot chair them.

The appointment is a remarkable vote of confidence. Blair knows it will be unpopular with some colleagues, who already resent Mandelson’s influence. But, if anything, the election campaign has strengthened the relationship. Allies of Blair say there is no mystery in why the two get on so well. Blair respects Mandelson’s judgement, loyalty and ferocious workrate. Why not exploit these qualities at the heart of government.

Those who will view the appointment with greatest suspicion are likely to be Gordon Brown and John Prescott. As Chancellor, Brown will also be keeping a keen eye on the activities of other departments. The annual public-spending rounds, conducted against the background of desperately tight expenditure targets, will be highly charged affairs. Prescott originally wanted  Michael Heseltine’s old job. He has got the title of Deputy Prime Minister, but Mandelson has got much of the job.

Mandelson himself is keen to dismiss any notion that the job is an excuse for “meddling”. He is aware of the sensitivity of the appointment and is stressing its logistical importance rather than the scale of influence it could bring him.

This is not the cabinet Blair would have chosen if he had been given an entirely free hand. But by placing Mandelson in such a key position, and by giving other favourites highly influential junior roles, the constraints within which he has worked will make little practical difference to his government.

This article is part of the New Statesman's 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.