Despite Having Spoilt the PM's Xmas Break, Jack Straw and David Blunkett Should See Their Influence on Policy Grow in 1998

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), January 9, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Despite Having Spoilt the PM's Xmas Break, Jack Straw and David Blunkett Should See Their Influence on Policy Grow in 1998


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


In 1998 there will almost certainly be a cabinet reshuffle. It may not be extensive, but the prospect of an ignobly early exit from the government will be enough to keep ministers on their toes. Very few can feel entirely safe, but two who definitely can are those who inadvertently spoilt the prime ministerial holiday. Indeed the influence of Jack Straw, assailed over his son's misdemeanours with cannabis, and David Blunkett, whose leaked memo about his concerns over welfare reform raised the preholiday temperature, is likely to grow over the coming year.

For on two of the big themes of 1998, constitutional reform and changes to the welfare state, the stance adopted by Blunkett and Straw will be taken as seriously by Tony Blair as those of the "Big Three" in the cabinet. Indeed the significance and influence of the two festive troublemakers is widely underestimated, while the power of the trio of giants is sometimes overplayed (Gordon Brown is the second most powerful player in the government, but Robin Cook is often abroad, while John Prescott is immersed in a giant department). Blunkett and Straw are at the heart of domestic policy and have acute political antennae. Their influence undermines the notion that all the key decisions are made by Blair and Brown on a sofa in Downing Street. Straw and Blunkett both have sofa sessions, too.

In many ways Straw is the minister whose views and lifestyle most closely chime with Blair's. Like Blair, Straw is a Christian Socialist who has always ensured that he spends time each day with his children. Both are married to wives pursuing successful careers. Politically Straw was the first senior Labour politician to call for the scrapping of Clause Four and the modernisation of the monarchy. Both stances infuriated John Smith, who was leader at the time, but placed him on what became the Blairite wing of the party. No one else in the shadow cabinet could have succeeded Blair as shadow home secretary and pursued his new leader's crime agenda with the same conviction. I also suspect that Straw's wariness of the single currency is closer to Blair's position than the restrained enthusiasm of the Chancellor.

But in the coming year Straw's political rapport with his leader will be most important in the field of constitutional reform. The Commission set up to propose an alternative voting system has been given 12 months to deliver, but its chairman, Lord Jenkins, has a more ambitious timescale in mind. He has told his fellow members that he would like the work completed by September. If the Commission succeeds, electoral reform could dominate the party conference season and beyond. Straw, as Home Secretary, would be central to the debate as well as being responsible for preparing for a referendum, likely to be held next year. He is a "first-past-the-poster", but would accept the Alternative Vote (which is not a proportional system and retains the link between MPs and their constituencies). I believe this to be Blair's position as well. Straw's stance on other constitutional issues - his opposition to ceding too many powers to a Scottish Parliament, his enthusiasm for reforming the Lords - also mirrors Blair's views. Straw also has the merit of consistency, which suggests conviction rather than tactical scheming. He is an ideal cabinet colleague for Blair, sharing a political outlook but without obvious ambition to succeed him.

David Blunkett comes from a different direction, but one which makes him an equally important figure. He has deeper roots in the party than either Straw or Blair. In the 1980s he regularly topped the annual NEC elections and he still performs well. He was an influential council leader, worked closely with Bryan Gould in opposition and still has radical instincts.

But Blunkett is also a pragmatist, someone who weighs scrupulously the complicated equation between conviction, party interest and of course personal ambition. Privately he probably agrees with his tormentor, Roy Hattersley, that changing structures and a large injection of cash would make a difference to standards in schools.

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