Magazine article The Spectator

Dishing the Tories (and Mr Kinnock)

Magazine article The Spectator

Dishing the Tories (and Mr Kinnock)

Article excerpt

THE choice of Chris Patten as the Conservative European Commissioner in preference to Sir Alastair Goodlad was a typically continental marriage of the strong arm and the sleight hand. The subplot, however, was pure Blair. As late as last week, sources very close indeed to Neil Kinnock were saying that the problem with the Patten appointment was that the former Hong Kong governor might only accept the job on condition that he would be the senior of Britain's two Commissioners. Obviously, for Patten to be parachuted in over Kinnock's head would have been an intolerable affront to the Father of New Labour. But this delicate matter would have found its felicitous conclusion in the appointment of Kinnock as the High Commissioner to South Africa. With the rainbow nation under the presidency of his old friend Tabo Mbeki (for many years the ANC man in London), Kinnock would have been delighted to go.

It now seems that Patten, unaware of such a contingency plan, underplayed his hand. The Foreign Office and the Kinnock camp are presently embroiled in hand-to-hand negotiations to secure a vice-presidency and the plum external relations portfolio for the senior British Commissioner, Kinnock. Though not yet certain, it looks as though Patten has missed his chance. What is interesting, though, is that Blair was prepared to give him the top job if he had insisted on it.

On the one hand, this is yet another example of Blair's ruthlessness: being willing to edge his revered predecessor out of the senior post - though admittedly with a consolation prize he was perfectly happy to accept -- simply in order to facilitate a classically pluralist Blair gesture. On the other, it is the importance attached to symbolism that so perfectly illustrates Blair's political style: not simply to dish the Tories by rejecting their man, but to dish the Labour man who is still unpopular in Daily Mailland and replace him with a far more simpatico 'Blairservative' hybrid. Even more than spiking the Tory guns, the plan to catapult Patten straight into Sir Leon Brittan's shoes was part of the relentless onslaught on middle-class voters' fear of Old Labour.

The same can be said of the final element in this diplomatic scene change. As the lights dim again and the curtain twitches, Sir Alastair is being wheeled into a splendid new job. High Commissioner to Australia, is what I hear. The obvious question is why the government should have bothered. The answer, again, lies in the great Blairite strategy of `hoovering up' any spare Tories who might be lying around. In the Kingdom of Blair, an opponent co-opted into service of the Project is worth a hundred of the home team who may think they have claims on these jobs.

Sir Alastair is bound to be just as efficient in the post as the next man. After all, in the grand scheme of things it does not really matter who is High Commissioner to Australia. What is important is that Blair is seen to be so far short of sectarian that he could barely be called partisan. He is made to appear unlike other politicians - but like ordinary people - in that he isn't interested in people's politics, just their ability to do the job. As it happens, this is mainly true; but it's not really the point, because Sir Alastair will not actually be appointed because of his ability, but as a symbolic gesture. Blair is replacing patronage with conscription. (The serial ennoblement of the long-pocketed Blairite Luvviocracy doesn't count, but that's another matter. …

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