Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Kinnock Wages the War of Blair's Ear

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Kinnock Wages the War of Blair's Ear

Article excerpt


THE leaders of the EU are arriving in Berlin for a fraught summit, with lots of big questions unresolved. Meanwhile, a fascinating little battle is taking place in London, with some curious, unpredictable alignments and alliances. It is the war of Tony Blair's ear over the appointment of the two British members of the new European Commission, and it is being principally waged by Neil Kinnock against Chris Patten.

A few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that there would be such a contest; the matter appeared to be resolved.

By convention, the two commissioners are chosen by the Prime Minister of the day, from his party, and the leader of the opposition from his. There are, however, precedents for the PM overriding the opposition leader's choice, in favour of another member of that party. In 1976, partly at Roy Jenkins's instigation, Jim Callaghan rejected Mrs Thatcher's nominee, John Davies. The post was offered to Ian Gilmour and then, when he declined, to Christopher Tugendhat. In 1992, John Major rejected John Smith's nomination, of which more below.

This time, there seemed to be no reason for any dispute. There had been suggestions that Mr Blair might break with tradition, and punish the Tories for being the one significant grouping in British public life which was resisting his Laocoon embraces, by appointing a non-political figure, or even a sub-political figure, Paddy Ashdown. But this was just mischief-making on Alastair Campbell's part, designed to play on Tory insecurities. Mr Hague had made his choice, and Mr Blair seemed happy to accept it while also renominating the serving Labour commissioner, Neil Kinnock.

William Hague's selection was Alastair Goodlad, the former Chief Whip. Sir Alastair had two assets which helped to secure the PM's initial approval. The first and less important were his personal qualities, considerable though they are. As John Major's Chief Whip, he was a life-support mechanism; without him, that government would never have lasted out its full term. At once grand and slightly shy, Alastair Goodlad is a dry, laconic character who never uses two words when none will do; would never dream of hurrying, but is always in the right place. He keeps his field of vision uncluttered for the study of his colleagues' egos by rarely allowing his own to appear above the horizon. Sir Alastair is an operator.

Of itself, that might not have been decisive but some years ago Alastair Goodlad had the foresight to pair with a promising young Labour MP, a chap called Blair. Pairs often become friends; so they did on this occasion, partly because they already had one good friend in common. Derry Irvine, now the Lord Chancellor, is one of Alastair Goodlad's oldest friends. They share an interest in modern painting. Sir Alastair has a modest collection, which would be larger if he had not been restricted to a ministerial salary for most of the past 20 years. Lord Irvine has an immodest collection, but he spent most of the past 20 years raking in and spending the same vast Bar earnings which he now seems to regard as indecent. Derry Irvine is not popular among Tories; Alastair Goodlad always defends him.

But there is one quarter in which Lord Irvine needs no defenders: No. 10 Downing Street. Back in the Seventies, Derry Irvine was Tony Blair's pupil master at the Bar. By all accounts, he was an inspiring master, but also an intimidating one, which may explain why it sometimes appears as if his relationship with his former pupil is preserved in the aspic of an earlier inequality. The PM still seems a little in awe of his Lord Chancellor, who in turn - Roy Jenkins was shocked will occasionally address him as `young Blair'.

In government, Derry Irvine has created a few problems for his former pupil: clumsiness in the House of Lords, injudicious forays into interior decoration et al. But the firm view among those who know Mr Blair's mind is that while the PM could lose faith in Gordon Brown and has lost all faith in Robin Cook, Derry Irvine is invulnerable. …

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