Magazine article The Spectator

Brown Lurks as Blair and Duncan Smith Sink Together

Magazine article The Spectator

Brown Lurks as Blair and Duncan Smith Sink Together

Article excerpt

There has been no more abject moment in the Blair premiership than last Tuesday afternoon's capitulation to the trade unions. The grandees of the movement, led by the new TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, were ushered with some deference into Downing Street. The ambitious Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who has spent the past two years sucking up to the unions - or, as her allies prefer to put it, 'undoing the damage' caused by her predecessor Stephen Byers - viewed proceedings with pleasure. Finally, there was John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, looking smug.

Under discussion was a new settlement between the unions and government. For the past six years Tony Blair has viewed the brothers with a certain hauteur. He has treated them like any other special-interest group - for instance, the CBI or the Green lobby - but has granted no special favours. Last Tuesday that changed. The unions have been incorporated into the formal machinery of government. They will have representation on a standing body, chaired by a minister, on public-service reform. Downing Street privately indicated that this is just part of a series of moves that will bring the unions closer to the Blair government.

Last Tuesday was a triumph for Brendan Barber, for Dave Prentis of the public-service union Unison, for John Prescott and for Old Labour at large. It was a humiliation for Tony Blair, who built his political reputation as the man who could stand up to the unions. It made a nonsense of the pledge he made in 1997 to 'govern as New Labour', and is just the first of a series of bitter pills that he will have to swallow in the coming months. As Tony Blair knows better than anybody else, the presence of the unions at the heart of policy-making hands public services over to the producer interest. Tuesday night's surrender makes reform quite impossible.

Only twice since the end of the second world war has the reputation of a serving prime minister sunk as fast and as far as Tony Blair's over the summer. One case was Anthony Eden, shot to pieces after the Suez campaign of 1956. The other was John Major after the Black Wednesday calamity of September 1992. The consequent loss of authority rendered both men powerless, even though John Major lingered on for years. The same catastrophe has now struck Tony Blair.

His key allies in government - Byers, Mandelson, Milburn, Campbell, Hoon have either been disgraced or quit in despair. Just three Blairites remain in the Cabinet the unelected Charlie Falconer, Tessa Jowell, by no means a heavyweight, and doomed, wretched Geoff Hoon. When Blair started out in power six years ago, Cabinet ministers sought advancement by ingratiating themselves with No. 10. Jowell is the only one still pursuing this undignified tactic. Hoon's political identity was as a pliable instrument of Downing Street, but he has been destroyed as a result and is now in the exit chamber. Other Cabinet ministers, now wide awake to the dangers of close association with No. 10, have begun to realise that the way forward is to build up a distinctive position of their own. In practice that means forging links with the unions and the activists, the two power blocs that will determine Tony Blair's successor as Labour leader. The presidential strategy self-consciously pursued by Downing Street for six years has collapsed, and with it the chance that Tony Blair can control the agenda of his own government.

The months ahead are a nightmarish obstacle course for the Prime Minister. …

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