The Blair government’s tendency to brief against ministers erodes decency and democracy.
In theory, the cabinet is made up of politicians who together command enough support in the House of Commons to allow the government to get its business through. Varying views are discussed and an agreement is thrashed out; individual cabinet ministers then remain collectively loyal to that agreement. The prime minister’s job, traditionally, was to hold the grouping together – first among equals.
All of this has been swept aside under the Blair regime. The majority in the House of Commons is so large, though based on the support of a minority of the electorate, that the prime minister can appoint who he likes. Important policy decisions are not thrashed out in cabinet, they are decided by Blair and his entourage of advisers and then pushed through the Commons where necessary by arm-twisting appeals to loyalty and the ruthless use of patronage.
I am afraid that this concentration of power in No 10 and decision-making by people who do not consult and are not held accountable explains the pattern of poor policy decisions in Blair’s second term – from foundation hospitals to top-up fees and, most spectacularly, on Iraq.
And yet there is constant speculation about who is in and out of the cabinet. Thus it was repeatedly said over the summer that Andrew Smith was to be dropped. Anonymous sources brief the media to undermine him and then when he decides he has had enough, we are assured that the prime minister wanted to keep him in cabinet. The media tell us that Alan Milburn is to come back to the cabinet as chair of the Labour party only one year after he said he wanted to spend more time with his young family. Then we are told Gordon Brown is fighting this because Milburn is a Blairite and a potential leader. Ian McCartney is to be dropped, but Prescott and the TUC are rallying for McCartney. Blairites and Brownites are clashing. Brown is unhappy because Andrew Smith was a Brownite, etc.
Sadly, under New Labour this is the way in which people are managed. Everyone is perfectly pleasant in person; the ticking off is done via the media. People are undermined through it and puffed up through it, but everything is completely deniable and no one has to take responsibility. Labour is haunted by the divisions of the early 80s and Blair has got away with a lot because the party does not want to be divided. And yet his machine endlessly briefs the media about a battle between Blairites and Brownites that can only damage the government.
It is not accurate to say the cabinet has two factions – Brownites and Blairites. But Brown is the only member of the cabinet with enough political strength to demand to be consulted about strategic decisions of the government. He and Blair never enter into discussion in cabinet, but they do meet and clash and in the end reach agreement. On foundation hospitals, Brown modified the original proposal by reducing the right of individual hospitals to borrow and charge for treatment in a way that would undermine any principle of equity in the NHS. On top-up fees he won concessions that improved the position of low-income students and persuaded Nick Brown to stop opposing the proposal and therefore, mistakenly in my view, enabled Tony Blair to get it through the Commons.
On Iraq, Brown was marginalised and the policy was run by Blair and his entourage, but when Blair began to look gaunt and worried, John Prescott brought the two together and Brown came in behind Blair with the strategy of blaming the French for the broken promise on a second UN resolution.
Many who think the country and the Labour party badly need a new leader so that the mistakes of the Iraq policy can be admitted and, as far as possible, corrected, feel disappointed that Brown has not made his stand. He was the only one with the strength to force Blair to stand down. It looks as though the moment has passed and we are saddled with a continuing Blair premiership, despite the mistakes, tiredness and fractiousness of his regime.
But this reality is hardly discussed or canvassed by our political commentators. All we get is unattributed tittle-tattle. And thus there is no collective and little trust or honest friendship. No one is immune – Gordon Brown is crucial to Blair’s government but he is constantly briefed against. The government reshuffle is rehearsed through the media so that Blair has got himself into a hole that could have been avoided if he decided on the reshuffle and then told the media. The No 10 machine does not hold itself accountable to cabinet or parliament or public opinion any more. Manipulating the media is its obsession and the merits of most arguments are reduced to speculation about who is climbing up or sliding down the greasy pole. The court of King Tony has become a very unpleasant place.