Mutiny in the Cabinet; as Charles Clarke and Other Loyal Blairites React in Anger to Tony Blair's Euro Referendum, Just Who Is Running the Government?

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Byline: MARK SEDDON

THE Cabinet mutiny over Europe has set Blairites against Brownites, and more portentously, Blairites against Tony Blair. And it shows no signs of abating.

The rumbustious Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is reported to have had a standup row with the Prime Minister during a recent Cabinet meeting.

His beef? Well, it came in two parts: there was Tony Blair's decision to bounce his Cabinet colleagues into accepting a referendum on the proposed Euro constitution, and then there was the role that the Chancellor and heir apparent, Gordon Brown had in persuading Blair to do so.

Clarke has been as ferociously loyal to Blair as he once was to Neil Kinnock, risking his job and possibly even his parliamentary seat to bulldoze through the university top-up fees that are so universally unpopular.

Charles did this for Tony. The least he might have expected in return for such self-sacrifice might have been to learn of the Euro referendum plan before Rupert Murdoch's newspapers.

That he didn't speaks realms about the health of our parliamentary democracy in an increasingly autocratic, presidential age. It also rebuts those who have begun comparing Tony Blair to the artful Harold Wilson in his declining years.

Wilson, for all of his faults, would never have dreamed of avoiding taking the fraught issue of Europe directly to the Cabinet, in the full knowledge that heavyweight political arguments on both sides might mean that the meeting would drag on for hours.

BUT it has been a hallmark of the Blair years that hugely significant political decisions are taken by the Prime Minister and a cabal of advisers.

The rest, the Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party, then have to live with them - or worse, have to try and sell them.

If any further proof is needed of the flaws in the Blair/Wilson comparison, it has been provided by Wilson's former Press Secretary, Joe Haines. Yesterday he announced that he was leaving Labour after 40 years, launching a devastating attack on Tony Blair's "flat-pack Government" (however you

keep putting it together, it still keeps coming undone).

The litany of "Blair bounce" issues include Iraq, foundation hospitals, tuition fees and now the most volatile issue of them all - the European Constitution. It is perhaps careless to enrage the Brownites from time to time, but it may prove fatal for the Prime Minister to have so infuriated allies such as Charles Clarke and David Blunkett.

Critics of the Third Way have warned the Prime Minister that standing in the middle of the road is an unsafe political practice. Now being assailed from all directions, the question is openly asked: is Tony Blair the right man to lead Labour into an election possibly only 15 months away? …