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Diary: Donald Macintyre

Hazel Blears was not always an "ultra-Blairite"

The past week brought yet another chapter in the most drama-packed triangular relationship of modern times: that between Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. When Mandelson was brought back to the cabinet by his old arch-enemy last year, I had actually forgotten writing in the Independent in 2001 – after Mandelson’s second resignation – that “though Mr Brown’s allies will split their sides laughing at the very suggestion, tears of mirth rolling down their cheeks – there is probably more chance of his [returning] under a Brown premiership than a Blair one”. Yet I certainly did not anticipate his becoming, in all but name, Brown’s deputy prime minister.

Meanwhile, as Frank Dobson has cited Paul Krugman’s praise for Brown, it is worth reading the economics guru’s column in the New York Times this week. Krugman does indeed judge that Brown’s response to the financial crisis “makes sense while that of his [Tory] opponents does not”, but he also laments Brown’s much earlier decision as chancellor to buy “fully into the dogma that the market knows best, that less regulation is more”. History may judge that subordinating his own regulatory instincts to New Labour fears of upsetting the City may be the core of the Brown tragedy.

Hazel Blears was not always an “ultra-Blairite”. Indeed, I can claim the dubious distinction of having been the only journalist present at the moment of her conversion, in the prosaic setting of the Chalon Court Hotel, St Helens, on a wet Friday evening in February 1995. Blair was in the midst of his campaign to persuade the Labour Party to dump the old Clause Four, and he was certainly at his evangelical best. But among the 200 party activists from the north-west who turned out to hear him, Blears, not yet an MP, was the most articulate of his doubters on the left. Afterwards she told me that while she had had doubts about changing Clause Four, she now admired his “courage”. But at the meeting itself, it was doubt that she expressed most clearly. No, she was no longer interested in seeing the “nationalisation of Marks & Spencer” but did want to be confident that “as a Labour Party we are not simply about tinkering at the edges. We’re about changing society quite dramatically, quite fundamentally, in favour of working people.” Now that she has left the government, will she pronounce on whether she thinks Labour has, or indeed should have, achieved that?

Palestinians, or at least those in President Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank, are relieved that the Brown government has remained intact, and especially that there has been no change at the Foreign Office. On Monday evening I was at the Jerusalem Queen’s Birthday Party. The Palestinian-dominated occasion, in the garden of the British consul general, Richard Makepeace, was made the more convivial by plentiful draft Taybeh, the sole (and excellent) Palestinian beer, brewed in the West Bank Christian village of that name. (Thanks to the Department for International Development, UK taxpayers have given the brewer Nadim Khoury financial help to market a second, non-alcoholic beer of his, paradoxically conceived by the enterprising Mr Khoury after the 2006 election victory of alcohol-unfriendly Hamas.) All week Makepeace had fielded anxious inquiries about the fate of the Brown cabinet, which Palestinian officials see as rather more even-handed than Blair’s. But they would have been particularly dismayed to see Brown replace David Miliband. Reinforced by his formidably intelligent senior Middle East official John Jenkins, Miliband is credited in Ramallah for “getting” the Israel-Palestinian conflict better than his predecessors, for promoting the Arab Peace Initiative, and even for exercising a little possible influence on the incoming Obama adminstration.

I watched Barack Obama’s Cairo speech at a cafe in Gaza City. Expectations were distinctly low and the young manager, Ali Asfour, was doubtful whether any of his customers would want to watch it. For the first few minutes he himself ignored it, concentrating instead on his computer. But, like most of his narghile-smoking clientele, he found himself drawn in, pronouncing his view as “very positive” once it was over.

The widespread view in Gaza was that it was a great speech but that action was now needed to lift the siege in a territory still struggling to come to terms with two years of blockades and Israel’s military onslaught in January. Moreover, Obama’s intellectually coherent piece of repositioning remains unlikely to secure a breakthrough from Hamas. But it does look as if Obama is still serious about demanding, however belatedly, a halt to Israel’s settlement expansion as a prelude to negotiations.

A senior Israeli official told me he knew “for a fact” that Obama would not lift his demand on settlements even if Binyamin Netanyahu finally says the words Washington wants to hear: “Palestinian state”. This time, it seems, words will not be enough.

Donald Macintyre is Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!