Magazine article The Spectator

Is Lord Irvine Wise to Treat Mr Mandelson like an Office-Boy?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is Lord Irvine Wise to Treat Mr Mandelson like an Office-Boy?

Article excerpt

Ministers bitching at one another, briefing against each other, openly questioning their colleagues' competence. Highprofile public works programmes adrift, because ministers are incapable of exercising grip. Regular reports of sleaze and double standards, of ministers more interested in their perquisites than in their duties. A growing demoralisation among officials, with widespread complaints that they cannot work out what their bosses want them to do, leading some senior civil servants to conclude that this lot are fed up with the chores of office and would be much happier in opposition. A government increasingly lacking in central strategic direction, and solely interested in the next election; what, for instance, is its policy on EMU?

One could continue that catalogue almost indefinitely; no wonder the Tory opposition is frustrated. After less than a year in office, the Blair government is behaving even more ineptly than the Major government was reported as behaving, yet its standing in the opinion polls is still at near-record levels. The Opposition is spoilt for targets, and yet however often it hits them, the public shows no interest.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a typical instance of this government's modus operandi. No. 10 briefed the press about Mr Blair's latest decree: that his ministers would not be allowed to slip off to the soccer world cup this summer. It is impossible to imagine any previous prime minister authorising a press briefing of that nature. (Mrs Thatcher was not always enamoured of all those who served her, but it would never have occurred to her that they might abandon their desks to watch football.) If any earlier Downing Street had issued such an instruction, the headlines would have been predictable: 'A Government of Skivers' - and in public relations terms, the PM would have scored an own goal. But not this time; this government's standing depends on Mr Blair alone. He is now the Louis XIV of British politics; he could claim that `le gouvernement, c'est moi'.

His colleagues have assisted him in his ascent towards dictatorship. There were never going to be more than six members of this Cabinet with claims to `big beast' status: Messrs Brown, Cook, Dewar, Prescott and Straw, plus Lord Irvine. But since 1 May, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook have damaged themselves, while Donald Dewar is cut off in his Scottish backwater. John Prescott has not made any serious mistakes, yet, but he is less impressive in government than in opposition. As for Mr Straw, he is one of those figures, such as Michael Stewart, Tony Barber, Robert Carr or Merlyn Rees, who play a key role in an administration without achieving a substantial political identity. They may hold great offices; they never become great men. That Mr Straw is now the principal Cabinet recipient of prime ministerial favours is a sign, not of his strength, but of his senior colleagues' weakness, and of Mr Blair's dominance.

Lord Irvine is much the most interesting member of the government, and likely to remain so; as long as it lasts, his political career will be an amusing theatrical spectacle. He thought that he was making a joke when he compared himself to Cardinal Wolsey; some of his colleagues are not so sure. His problem is that the very qualities which brought him advancement in the past now expose him to risk.

Derry Irvine owed his success at the Bar to a combination of forensic prowess and a forceful, indeed arrogant, personality. As a result, he developed considerable intellectual self-confidence; he did not buy his house in Argyllshire or his collection of Scottish Colourists out of the proceeds of humility or caution. …

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