Into the Second Term

R.W. Johnson

  • Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley
    Hamish Hamilton, 434 pp, £17.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 241 14029 3
  • Mandelson and the Making of New Labour by Donald Macintyre
    HarperCollins, 638 pp, £6.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 00 653062 1
  • Mo Mowlam: The Biography by Julia Langdon
    Little, Brown, 324 pp, £16.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 316 85304 6
  • Ann Widdecombe: Right from the Beginning by Nicholas Kochan
    Politico’s, 302 pp, September 2000, ISBN 1 902301 55 2
  • The Paymaster: Geoffrey Robinson, Maxwell and New Labour by Tom Bower
    Simon and Schuster, 272 pp, £17.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 7432 0689 4
  • The Future of Politics by Charles Kennedy
    HarperCollins, 235 pp, £17.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 00 710131 7

Throughout the time that he was Prime Minister Clement Attlee read only the Times. He was, he said, too busy to bother with other newspapers. The fact that the Times was firmly Tory and, after a few years of Labour Government, almost hysterically anti-socialist, didn’t worry him at all. ‘That’s what one expects,’ he said. ‘It’s quite reliable in that, which is, in its way, rather restful. And the cricket reports are good.’ Under New Labour, by contrast, every day in Downing Street starts with a careful sifting of the press; there are strong responses to any stories which might have been ‘inspired’ or leaked. Enormous care is taken to try to manage the news not just in the obvious sense of trying to put a positive spin on whatever the Government is doing but, more fundamentally, in blocking off whole policy areas because they might result in a damaging headline in the Sun or the Mail.

This ultra-sensitivity has inevitably increased the importance of the media managers. When the Northern Ireland negotiations got serious Tony Blair took Alistair Campbell into the room with him and insisted that Mo Mowlam remain outside. David Trimble was astonished but that’s how it always is with New Labour. Andrew Rawnsley records how the momentous decision that Britain would not join the euro during the current Parliament was taken. Aware of the increase in Euroscepticism from Philip Gould’s focus groups and daily readings of the Sun and the Mail, Gordon Brown’s press secretary, Charlie Whelan, and his economic adviser, Ed Balls, sent the Times a fax hinting at a major policy change while Whelan tried to persuade the Sun to go with the headline ‘Brown Saves Pound’. Whelan, operating from his mobile phone on the pavement outside a pub, confirmed to the BBC and ITN: ‘Yes, Gordon is ruling out British membership.’ Word rapidly spread that this massive policy shift on what Brown had called ‘the most important question the country is likely to face in a generation’ was being announced to the world from a mobile phone against a background of general inebriation.

When the story came out not as a hint but as an emphatic rejection of Europe, there was consternation: Britain’s relations with the EU were on the line. Peter Mandelson, horrified at the implications – he styled himself Minister for Looking Ahead – was sure that this all resulted from leaving him out of the loop. Blair was alerted and asked Whelan what had happened. Whelan told him that the report merely echoed Government policy. ‘Who says it’s our policy?’ the Prime Minister asked – he had not been consulted – and ordered Whelan to ‘row back’. ‘Sorry, Tony, it’s too late,’ he was told. A conference call between Blair, Campbell, Brown, Balls, Mandelson and Whelan dealt with the crisis. No one thought it odd that the real inner cabinet not only did not include the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, but comprised four spinners and only two responsible ministers.

As Rawnsley points out, the curious thing about Blair is that, however much he wants to reject ideology, he is also endlessly eager to explain himself, to insist that there is a big idea, that there are principles, that there is, indeed, an ideology of the Third Way. The result of all these attempted explanations is utter vacuity. The nearest thing to a big idea – and it is the fundament to which Blair always returns under pressure – is that most Labour Governments of the 20th century were failures, that Labour never managed to become ‘the natural party of government’ as Harold Wilson wished, and that this was reflected in its failure ever to get elected for two full terms. Traumatised by four successive defeats, Blair wanted above all to make Labour electable and then to secure those two full terms. This would demonstrate that Blairism had overcome Labour’s congenital weakness. The problem was that there was no New Labour project to rival that of Attlee or Thatcher, no real idea of what those two full terms were to be about.

Blair sought to make up for this by leaning on the venerable sage Lord Jenkins for advice. (Rawnsley appears to accept this estimate, repeatedly referring to Jenkins as ‘the great historian’, apparently unaware that serious historians regard Jenkins as a coffee-table lightweight.) What Jenkins had to offer was a passionate Europeanism and a belief that it was Labour’s split from the Liberals early in the century that had allowed the Tories to dominate government down the years. The remarriage of Lib and Lab should, he argued, be cemented by a change from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, which would not only make Parliament a much truer reflection of the popular will but would result in an alliance resembling the broader formation of the Democratic Party in the US.

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