Magazine article The Spectator

Guess Who Recruited Tony Blair to Be Lead Singer of Ugly Rumours

Magazine article The Spectator

Guess Who Recruited Tony Blair to Be Lead Singer of Ugly Rumours

Article excerpt

Full summer in all its glory arrived in London last week. But there was a tetchy feel at Westminster. The government is drifting to the end of one of its thinner legislative sessions. The Whitsun recess stretched on for two weeks, while the summer term seems likely to end well before August. New Labour has lost direction and become subject to sudden squalls and spats. Robin Cook, leader of the Commons, addressed the problem with style. He set off for Royal Ascot. Cook, a man of good socialist principles, refuses to compromise with the dress demands or general nonsense of the Royal Enclosure. Clad in a lounge suit, he ostentatiously allied himself with the heaving populace outside. This fastidiousness was not shared by Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary. She happily accepted an invitation to attend Ladies' Day as a guest of Lord Hartington, the Queen's representative. When I questioned her closely about this, she quite properly refused to disclose what colour hat she intended to wear or what outfit she would choose.

Among ministers less resourceful than Cook and Jowell there is aimless unease; within Downing Street, frustration. No. 10 likes to be in control. Five- and ten-year plans abound, and its strategists like to think they know what headlines will be in the newspapers next Thursday week. Instead, events humble on with the inconsequence of an Ealing comedy. As always, the real purpose and drive come from the Treasury. While Downing Street endeavours to cope as best it can with Cherie Booth's audacious plunge into Middle Eastern politics, Gordon Brown is hard at work in the Treasury.

The Chancellor's spare time, as the Times's parliamentary correspondent Greg Hurst revealed in an illuminating article on Tuesday, is dedicated to composing long, handwritten notes expressing his personal sympathy to the ministers - some of whom he has never noticed before in his life sacked in last month's government reshuffle. But Brown's primary concern is the Comprehensive Spending Review, which will determine public spending until the year 2006. The CSR has been convulsing Whitehall in feverish negotiations for more than a month. Producing it is a task that is greatly to the Chancellor's taste. It calls for the grinding hard work and attention to detail for which he is renowned. It enables Brown to foster the by no means illusory impression that he, not Tony Blair, is the real Prime Minister, at any rate as far as domestic policy is concerned. It enables Brown to intimidate Cabinet ministers, doling out favours to friends while punishing enemies. Last April, Brown's Budget statement brought stability to the government after it had been blown off course by Mittal. There is every reason to expect that this year's CSR, pencilled in for 11 July, will achieve the same effect.

There is plenty of money sloshing around for the next three years, with spending set to rise by a prodigious 4.3 per cent per annum in real terms. The special problem this year is that most of this money has already been committed to health, education (where Estelle Morris has sensibly made it her business to form an alliance with the Chancellor) and social security. Once these three departments have been taken care of, other government departments can expect a spending rise of a much less generous 1. …

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