The New Machiavellis; the Battle for the Ear of the Leader Is Bloody and Merciless. as Britain Prepares for a New PM, and a Fresh Pack of Politicos Fight for Supremacy, Derek Draper Recalls His Time at Tony Blair's Round Table. and, Overleaf, Charlotte Eagar Charts the Course of Today's Political Courts

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A good friend of mine used to be very close to Tony Blair, back in the mid-Nineties heyday of New Labour. He was young, single, and liked to party. One day Blair pointed out a very attractive worker at party HQ. My friend grinned, and admitted he'd slept with her the previous month. Blair looked surprised and asked: 'How d'ya manage that?' My friend replied, 'Well, working for you, you know-' There are many other advantages to being a courtier to a political leader. As was the case for Labour pre-1997, and is true today for David Cameron's Tories, politics feels exciting, almost sexy.

Of course, not everyone uses their proximity to power to enhance their ability to pull. Some will use it to build their businesses - the most dramatic example of this, of course, being the Saatchi brothers. Others will use it to increase their social cachet. Every posh London hostess would love to have a dinner-party guest this weekend who can boast, with authority, 'As Dave was saying to me the other day-' It feels good to be on the inside and once you are 'in', if you stay loyal, you are usually in for the duration.

Most politicians only want a handful of trusted friends, and they fill the positions early on. Blair's right-hand woman, Anji Hunter, met him when he was at school. Some of his Cabinet appointments (such as Derry Irvine and Charles Falconer), he knew from his first days at the Bar.

But as well as the real intimates, those on the periphery of the inner circle can also bask in the leader's reflected glory. As aide to Peter Mandelson, I was only ever the spin doctor's spin doctor, but in the aftermath of Blair's ascension to the Labour leadership I was invited to lunch with newspaper editors, feted by millionaire businessmen, and, yes, like my friend, chatted up. But all this happened not because of who I was but because of who I knew. It was all very seductive and exciting, but somewhat unreal, and ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.

I wonder now if the desire to be a member of a leader's political court - and to let everyone know you are - might sometimes mask shaky selfesteem.

Peter used to excuse himself from tea or drinks with people with a glance at his pager and a murmured, 'Sorry, I must call TB straight away.' If he wasn't involved in the whirl of high-level politicking he would seem despondent and rather lost.

It's not all driven by negative factors, though.

Sometimes you're pulled along by the thrill of being part of something you feel passionate about and believe you can contribute towards. For most courtiers, all of these factors are probably at work: some genuine commitment, a bit of psychological propping up and dash of good old-fashioned showing off.

Not that it is all easy going for those in the inner circle. The tensions and rivalry within any court can be intense, with frantic hustling for the top place in the pecking order. Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson were always doing the other down in the battle to be closest to Blair's ear. I remember having to drive Peter to Blair's house in Sedgefield from Hartlepool one weekend in order that he could press his advice on the leader prior to Campbell giving his view on the Monday morning.

Campbell mercilessly used humour to belittle Peter, often making references to his snootiness and social climbing, both of which had always worried Blair. This sort of competitiveness can irritate leaders if it gets out of hand but they also benefit if everyone is competing to be the most useful to them.

Having a committed court you can rely on is crucial for a political leader.

You need a small group of discreet, loyal people around you. Those attributes matter more, in the end, than their politics. Anji Hunter, for example, from all she ever said or did, struck me as a Tory born and bred. She never trusted Gordon Brown, and I would bet my house that if there is a general election fight between Cameron and Brown, she will vote for Cameron. …


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