All politics, one female minister reminded me, is personal. In this government, it is disturbingly so. The animosities that took root in opposition in the early 1990s have grown, even with the responsibilities of power that should have concentrated the mind. The latest outbreak of hostilities is remarkable for the speed at which a month of calm was shattered on the very first day of term. The resignation of Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, provided a fresh sub-plot for the bigger battle. This time the Blair/Brown saga is being fought through one of the Prime Minister's closest proxies, Alan Milburn, the Blairites' best hope of stopping Gordon Brown when the time comes.
It has become commonplace among the great and the good to denounce journalists for dragging politics into the mire. If only they knew. In the cesspit that is Westminster, the lobby and the various factions of new Labour are working in perfect harmony. Civil servants and those cabinet members of no fixed allegiance are in despair. They had hoped July had marked a turning point--that, whatever the rights and the wrongs, the question of Blair's succession had been postponed, at least until after the general election. They were both right and wrong.
Having survived the many crises over Iraq, the Prime Minister did consolidate his position on the eve of the summer recess, so much so that his inner circle began to lobby him to seize the moment, to "push ahead". The last time they ventured that idea was in April 2003, just after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad. Give Brown a job he could not possibly accept, such as Foreign Secretary, and promote more true believers, they urged Blair. The hubris subsided as Iraq disintegrated.
The Baghdad bounce begat the Barbados bounce. During Blair's long sojourns in the villas of the rich and famous, the birdie in his ear apparently persuaded him of the need to strike out ideologically (whatever that means in this most un-ideological of governments) and to shuffle the pack. He had already sounded out Milburn about a return to the top flight. He was told that the former health secretary genuinely enjoyed being with his family more, and that any comeback depended on the offer. That is where Ian McCartney's post of party chair came in. McCartney's supporters--ministers, MPs and union leaders--gathered on the House of Commons terrace in a show of strength on the evening of 7 September. …