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18 June 2001

New Labour, new thuggery

Ministers and their aides already look more stern: if they don't deliver this time, progressive poli

By Jackie Ashley

From the outside, the government may look much the same – the familiar mix of Victorian buildings and Seventies blocks; the familiar faces, albeit in different jobs; the same old mutterings about the Gordon-Tony split on the single currency. We had an election. Only half of the country came. The result was the same. Nothing, therefore, has changed.

Yet it has. A few days in, this second new Labour administration already looks very different from the first one. First, it is now genuinely Tony Blair’s personal government. The old debts to “party fighters”, as the communists used to say, have been cancelled. Robin Cook, hero of a thousand Tribune weekends, is out of the Foreign Office, truly a victim of Blair’s “inner steel”, since he had been assured three days earlier that his job was secure. In come younger, genuinely Blairite MPs, such as Ben Bradshaw and Stephen Twigg, both openly gay and both very camera-friendly. The other newcomers – Hazel Blears, Rosie Winterton, Sally Keeble and Hilary Benn among them – have one thing in common: they are earnest, hard-working and unpretentious. You could enjoy a couple of hours’ chat over a cup of tea with any one of them. They are, quite simply, normal, which is not all that usual in politics.

The heart of the new order, Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, has been comprehensively remodelled and rebuilt. Jonathan Powell, Anji Hunter and Alastair Campbell now form the three-headed guard-dog around the Prime Minister. The sharp, America-loving mandarin; the fiercely loyal old friend; and the hard man of the media world – these three most trusted colleagues will stick with Blair for a time, though all have confessed to eyeing up a life outside at some point.

Around that inner circle is splayed the Prescott Cabinet Office, with Lord (Gus) Macdonald, Sally Morgan (formerly Blair’s political secretary, now elevated to the Lords) and Barbara Roche. This is a team of toughies, the nearest Labour has to Lenin’s black-coated enforcers. For about 20 years, people have moaned that there really should be a stronger central department in Whitehall to ensure that what the prime minister thinks is important actually happens: for about 20 years, a succession of people have failed to make it happen. This is by far the most determined attempt yet. Working alongside that fearsome team will be the toughest of them all, Charles Clarke (see profile, page 18) in his new role as party chairman and minister without portfolio. He, too, is hell-bent on “delivery”.

It will be fascinating to see how all this works, particularly since the Treasury has taken over a lot of this progress-chasing and scrutiny of spending departments. If Prescott, Macdonald, Morgan and Roche, with Clarke beside them, fail, then we will see two competing teams charging across the Whitehall landscape creating mayhem. The fate of Blair’s second-term government is tied to what has, in effect, become the first prime minister’s department in British government history.

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The second big change has been the reshaping of ministries to reflect the big domestic tasks now facing Blair and Brown. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), with Alistair Darling, Nick Brown and Ian McCartney, is pretty much an out-station of Brown’s Treasury, the “doing” arm of the thinkers there who have made high employment levels and retraining absolutely central to reshaping the social security budget.

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Of the new departments, the ones people will be watching with most scepticism are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the equally unwieldy-looking Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The former, under Margaret Beckett, still mixes producer interests – the farmers – with consumer interests in safe, good food, as if they were identical. Transport, Local Government and the Regions, under Stephen Byers, looks like a terrible, ragged muddle. Byers survived more than a few headaches at the Department of Trade and Industry, and was hoping to be rewarded with Education. Instead, he finds himself in a job where his reputation for firefighting will be tested further, with train strikes and the breakdown of talks with London’s Tube supremo, Bob Kiley, already looming large. The biggest issue for his department is transport, the responsibility of one of his junior ministers, John Spellar. This veteran of trade-union fixing is described by colleagues as “a real thug”; he now has to hit big in a way he has not done before, or the worst “delivery failure” of 1997-2001 will be repeated.

I can see two other big changes, both of them about style, but also deep politics. The first, obviously, is the substantial and impressive influx of women, and into good jobs, too. Estelle Morris, Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Beckett, Sally Morgan, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman, Hilary Armstrong, Patricia Scotland, Ruth Kelly . . . Women will now have strong voices around the Cabinet table, and will become a major part of the “public face” of this administration.

The second change is that this already seems a sterner, less swanky administration. This column has attacked the Blair style in the past for being media-obsessed and headline-chasing and for giving the impression that the government was stuffed with champagne-swilling metropolitan luvvies, when it was in fact full of rather serious, often working-class, northern administrators. Now it looks and feels more like what it has always been, deep down. With people such as David Blunkett at the Home Office, Estelle Morris at Education and Jack Straw at the Foreign Office, it will still be a government to make my colleague Nick Cohen despair; but it is the authentic voice of socially conservative working-class Middle Britain.

So – a reshaped machine, a new style, and the priorities set by an election campaign that, I think, really and truly did shock the Prime Minister with the depth of public anger about public services.

It is all delivery now, isn’t it? The only thing that can go wrong is that, somehow, all this extra money and all these serious, tough-minded types still manage not to give us better schools, hospitals and railways. It would be curtains for new Labour and for progressive politics in this country for a generation to come. The Labour landslide may have been wide, but it was also shallow, based on a low turnout and little enthusiasm. A second “delivery failure campaign” could produce a huge swing of the national mood.

But the real threat hanging over the new government is nearer, sharper and more obvious still. The fragile truce on the euro, which saw Labour through the election campaign, was bound to shatter sooner or later, and, not surprisingly, it has been sooner. Blair’s tail has already been tweaked by Robin Cook’s former adviser David Clark, by Britain in Europe, the Liberal Democrats and many business people. They are impatient for Blair to lead on this. Straw’s arrival at the Foreign Office will provide no obstacle. Straw, a pragmatist if ever there was one, will be much better at selling the idea to a sceptical public than Robin Cook would ever have been, if the decision is made that this is what he has to do (see John Loyd, page 14).

But there were siren voices saying “delay” after 1997, and they are singing just as loudly today. The Chancellor’s real view on the euro remains opaque. There are three possibilities: that Brown is prepared to go along with it in the end, but wants Blair to swing a bit before he will admit to it; or he is ideologically opposed to it and will never accept it; or – and I believe this is the truth of it – he is still a genuine doubter, though not an ideological opponent of the single currency. He understands the political consequences of staying out, but also the loss of power in going in. He seems to fear, rightly, the ruthlessly anti-inflationary spirit of the German bankers.

So, will Brown relent or will Blair abandon his plans? The anti-euro press are convinced that the euro referendum won’t happen. The euro enthusiasts will keep up the pressure until it does. For this second administration, “more of the same” won’t be enough. On the euro, Blair and Brown will have to make up their minds.