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18 October 1999

The Blairites reign supreme

Steve Richardsreports that the reshuffle gives the Prime Minister the cabinet he wants. Thanks to th

By Steve Richards

Tony Blair has got a Blairite cabinet at last. This time no ministerial ego, newspaper or unexpected event was going to stand in his way. He wanted Peter Mandelson back, so Mandelson returned. He wanted Alan Milburn to sort out the NHS, so the ambitions of Mo Mowlam were politely ignored. The Prescotts, Cooks, Becketts and Shorts cling on at the top table, but the Blairites are in charge now.

But what does it mean to have a more Blairite cabinet? The rising stars are described as “modernisers”, “reformers” and “youthful”. No doubt they are “progressive” as well. None of these terms evokes a clear policy agenda for the years ahead.

Blair has followed the pattern of Margaret Thatcher, who waited until her first mid-term reshuffle to create a team closer to her own way of thinking. Until September 1981, when the wets were sacked or moved to Belfast (in those days Northern Ireland was a punishment for political foes), the Thatcherites had been a small minority in her own cabinet. From that moment on her cabinets had Thatcherite backbone.

Blair is surrounded by more ministers sympathetic to his political outlook than Thatcher ever was. Even those who are listed as non-Blairites are by no means united in a dissenting common cause. Prescott is almost as much a moderniser as Blair in his approach to the public sector, but strongly opposed to electoral reform and any relationship with the Liberal Democrats. Cook is less at ease with the public sector reforms but is the most enthusiastic advocate of constitutional reform in the cabinet. Beckett places loyalty to the prevailing orthodoxy above any personal misgivings. If the three of them met to conspire against the Blairite majority in the cabinet, they would fall out over who should make the coffee.

As for the “Blairites” and “Brownites”, I search in vain for profound policy differences. The new Chief Secretary, Andrew Smith, is said by some to be a Brownite. Does this mean he will be tougher or more relaxed on public spending than a Blairite would have been? To pose the question illustrates how meaningless these titles have become. A Brownite is someone who has worked successfully with Brown (as Andrew Smith did in opposition) and a Blairite is someone who has worked successfully with Blair. Quite often a Blairite could become a Brownite, or be both simultaneously. I am told that Alistair Darling has become a Blairite, having been a Brownite. No doubt the next time he goes with the Chancellor to watch Scotland lose a football match he will be a Brownite again without changing a single opinion en route. The harsh reality for us journalists, who thrive on internal dissent, is that, for now, this is the most united, competent and least ideological group of ministers to have been assembled for many years.

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That was not true after Thatcher’s 1981 reshuffle, but her ministerial changes did have one clear advantage. They gave her government momentum, linked to identifiable policy reforms. Just the sight of a mischievous-looking Norman Tebbit walking into Downing Street to join the cabinet signalled an acceleration of the trade union reforms, more changes to local government, a further tightening of public spending, all relating to the populist (if deeply misleading) theme of getting government and other institutions off people’s backs. It is not so easy to reel off a list of reforms symbolised by the return of Mandelson and the promotion of Milburn and Geoff Hoon.

Leading Conservatives and their increasingly strident supporters in the newspapers have argued that the return of Mandelson indicates precisely what Blairism is all about – clinging on to power at all costs and ensuring your friends are with you.

In my view it was much more revealing that Blair allowed Mandelson to leave in the first place. An arrogant Prime Minister with a landslide majority and a weak opposition would have held on to his best political friend last December. Indeed such a Prime Minister would have held on to Geoffrey Robinson as well, who left the government without any proof of wrongdoing. In both cases the newspapers sealed their fates. One of this government’s faults is that it is not arrogant enough. The newspapers have at least as much influence now as they did during the infinitely more fragile Major administration.

The return of Mandelson to Northern Ireland is neither a sign of Prime Ministerial arrogance, nor does it help in this instance to flesh out the detailed meaning of Blairism. The leading Blairite is in a job removed from the normal domestic agenda. Given the brevity of his exile, such a move was the only feasible option; it has the advantage, since the Labour Party does not organise in Northern Ireland, that he need never meet another Labour Party member. Often Mandelson has been attributed with near messianic powers (usually by editors who have never met him), but the best explanation for Blair’s admiration, as described to me by a close aide, is also the most mundane. Mandelson is a conscientious man, always available at any hour on a phone line, who can master the detail and nuance of policy very fast. When he says he will work “night and day” for peace in Northern Ireland, he means it more literally than most.

For once, we have to look beyond Mandelson for a clearer definition of Blairism. Broadly this is a cabinet at ease with tough public spending limits. The ministers in charge of two of the biggest spending departments – Darling at social security and Milburn at health – have both served as Treasury chief secretaries. They will focus on the delivery of public services, unencumbered by ideological prejudice. Milburn will challenge the doctors and the health workers in the way that David Blunkett, at education, has made demands on teachers.

On constitutional reform, the most radical agenda of the first term, this is a ruthlessly pragmatic team. I predict, for example, that the cause of English regional government will prove to have finally died with the reshuffle. The north-east contingent – Blair, Mandelson, Byers and Milburn – are all opposed, partly because they know better than most the quality of the representatives who would form a north-east assembly. Brown, too, is not a fan. This is a cabinet relaxed, also, about a second chamber dominated by appointed peers. How else would a transport minister of Lord Macdonald’s qualities be found, they ask? Certainly not in the mediocre ranks of our elected MPs, they imply.

On the whole, voters, like their ministers, are only bothered about “what works”. But a competent government can very quickly lose support if something unexpectedly goes wrong (take a look at John Major’s memoirs). The Blairite cabinet needs a renewed sense of direction as well as plaudits for efficient management.

Fortunately for our ruling pragmatists, the Conservatives have come to their aid. The gap between the two parties is greater than it has been for years. Even in transport, where caution prevailed over the need for urgent policy implementation, the government is a model of radicalism in comparison to the motorists’ friends on the opposition benches. And while ministers underestimate the level of investment required to lift public services generally from their current squalor, the Tories trump them with an uncosted “guarantee” to reduce the tax burden.

Then there is Europe. Mandelson, the strongest advocate for the euro, is back, and the other rising stars are all moving more or less in his direction. They may disagree over how to play the euro in the run-up to the election, but they are all at ease with the launch of Britain in Europe, which involves the most charismatic and popular members of the three main parties. Last summer ministers decided to make “Europe: in or out?” the main political question. They did not realise that the Conservatives would so willingly oblige by demanding the renegotiation of the Treaty of Rome.

Without any party boundaries being formally broken or coalitions formed, Blair is achieving his aim of isolating a right-wing Conservative Party. Freed from their tribal instincts, Blair, Brown, Charles Kennedy and Ken Clarke could serve in a cabinet together. But not a single member of Blair’s new front bench would get into Hague’s shadow cabinet. They are all far too left-wing.

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