The Sunday Times - Britain

June 15, 2003

Focus: Puzzled Blair loses the plot
Last week Tony Blair ditched his mentor and wounded allies, then sprang constitutional change out of the blue. David Cracknell and Eben Black report on the most chaotic ministerial reshuffle for years
Ten days ago, as ministers filed out after their discussion on the euro, a solitary figure remained at the long oval table in the cabinet room. Wearing a dark suit, without his ermine and robes, Lord Irvine, the lord chancellor, sat silently waiting to see the prime minister.

Irvine had asked to "have a quiet word" with Blair. Westminster was already rife with rumours that Irvine would be "retiring" in the forthcoming ministerial reshuffle because the prime minister was planning a radical shake-up of the legal and justice system.

Irvine was having none of it. He had told colleagues who inquired about his future that the reports were "nonsense". The ancient combination of the head of the judiciary sitting in cabinet, he had said, was "one and indivisible".

Blair had other plans for his former pupil master and the man who had introduced him to Cherie. Despite their long friendship, the time had come for the parting of the ways.

Whatever the result of their "quiet word" -- some say it was a row, others a fudge -- the result was clear a week later. Irvine was gone and uproar erupted over the cavalier way in which Blair announced the end of 1,400 years of constitutional tradition. He abolished the post of lord chancellor -- yet it later emerged that Lord Falconer, Blair's former flatmate, would continue to fill the role for months, perhaps years, while the change is debated.

In other ministerial moves, Blair alienated some allies and promoted the less-than-glittering. He sidelined the representation of Scotland and Wales in Westminster.

Ministers admitted privately that the reshuffle was a "rush job". Amid the shock and chaos, it began to seem like the most cack-handed for years. How did the Downing Street machine get it so wrong?

THE party was in full swing at Trimdon Labour club eight days ago when Alan Milburn sidled up to Blair. The prime minister had just wowed the crowd with his rendition of classic hits including Johnny B Goode on the guitar given to him by Bryan Adams, the rock star.

"I need to talk to you when we get back to London on Monday," Milburn said.

"Okay, what about?" asked Blair. Milburn, secretary of state for health and a key Blairite, replied that he was thinking of resigning. He knew that a reshuffle was in the offing and it seemed an appropriate time to go.

The prime minister, who was hosting the party of 250 guests to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his entering politics, had to hide his astonishment and disappointment. Not again: after Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris, the prime minister was about to lose another leading ally from the cabinet.

After Gordon Brown's statement on the euro on Monday afternoon, Blair took Milburn up to his flat in Downing Street.

The health secretary explained that his companion Ruth Briel had given him an ultimatum: family or frontline politics.

Blair did little to persuade him out of the decision. "He had already talked to his family and there was no question of him changing his mind," said a senior Blair aide.

For Blair the timing was awkward, an unwelcome distraction to his other deliberations over reshaping the cabinet. He was already battling on several fronts over whether to create new posts for justice, the family and Europe.

He also had a joint press conference with Gordon Brown set for the following morning and a midweek trip to Paris to patch up relations with President Jacques Chirac.

At the conference with Brown, Blair betrayed his uneasiness -- drumming his fingers on the table and playing with a pen. Although the reshuffle had been earmarked for Thursday, he began to think it should be delayed.

Word went out that it might be put back to the following Monday or Tuesday. After that his schedule was tight: later that week he was due to attend a summit to discuss the proposed new constitution for the European Union.

However, the resignation of such a key minister was a nagging concern since Milburn had already told a few close colleagues of his decision and there was a risk that the news would leak out. It did not help that Pat McFadden, Blair's political secretary, was on leave. Things were threatening to become messy.

In addition, David Blunkett was fighting his corner hard as Blair tried to resolve the complex issues about the lord chancellorship. The home secretary was resisting Blair's attempts to hive off his department's responsibility for criminal justice to a new body, notionally called the Ministry of Justice.

By Tuesday evening Blunkett sensed he was winning the argument. Standing in for Blair at a Fabian Society reception in Downing Street, he was in hearty enough spirits to make light of rumours that the Home Office would suffer in the reshuffle.

After prime minister's questions in the Commons on Wednesday, Blair and Baroness Morgan, his director of government relations, had a long afternoon session in his office behind the Speaker's chair -- shuffling pieces of paper around the desk, throwing around ideas. Morgan has been charged for some weeks with coming up with a revamp of the middle and junior ranks of government.

However, as Blair left for Paris that evening, many problems in the higher echelons were still unresolved. Did he think it best to get Milburn's resignation and the reshuffle over together? Was there a row with Irvine that bounced Blair into action? The reasons remain unclear, but Blair decided to press on with the reshuffle, even though he was being forced into compromises.

Knowing he had lost Milburn, he could ill afford to alienate other important cabinet allies. Although Blair wanted to create a new minister for Europe in the cabinet to demonstrate his support for the euro, he accepted the objections of Jack Straw, the foreign secretary.

Nor could Blair alienate Blunkett. "Tony needs David and Jack even more now," said one close colleague after Brown had flexed his muscles over the euro. Out went ideas of a Ministry of Justice. In their place came a different model, based on the creation of a supreme court and a new department to take on some of the role of the lord chancellor.

The official line from No 10 is that the idea had been kicking around for "a few weeks". In fact, to most insiders it was unheard of before Monday.

The model was being pushed by Falconer and Lord Williams of Mostyn, the former attorney-general. The concept of a new Department for Constitutional Affairs, headed by Falconer, also had the attraction of promoting a close friend of Blair into the cabinet, providing some compensation for losing Milburn.

On Thursday morning Blair's hectic schedule included breakfast with Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, before flying back for the weekly cabinet meeting. There Milburn's news was beginning to spread. The atmosphere as ministers continued their normal discussions on Iraqi reconstruction and the firefighters' strike was, according to one present, "surreal". Irvine sat with his face clouded with thunder. He was still in Downing Street later in the day, reluctant to accept his fate.

As for who should replace Milburn as health secretary, Blair's first choice, claim his aides, was always John Reid, the cabinet "bruiser" who had already been shifted three times in a year. But Reid and his team were reluctant to move a fourth time. It was only after persuasion that he agreed.

The scrambled nature of the changes was illustrated by the case of the hapless Nick Brown, an ally of the chancellor who had the right to sit in cabinet even though he was not a member. On Thursday evening he was sent to Newcastle to appear on BBC1's Question Time in place of Hilary Armstrong, the chief whip, who could not attend. She was in London -- where one of her tasks was organising the sacking of Brown.

That evening, with the cabinet changes dealt with, the prime minister and his aides sat down on wicker chairs on the terrace of the rose garden at No 10 to discuss changes among the junior ranks. Blair was joined by Alastair Campbell, Armstrong, Morgan and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff.

Margaret Hodge, the education minister, was given the new job of minister for children. Morris, who resigned as education secretary in October, returned as arts minister. Alan Johnson, the former union chief, was made universities minister responsible for taking forward the controversial plans on tuition fees. Out went Michael Meacher from his beloved environment job.

However, if Blair thought he acted boldly in tricky circumstances, critics soon began to perceive the reshuffle as haphazard and botched.

FEW of Blair's closest allies were satisfied except Falconer. Patricia Hewitt, trade secretary, and Geoff Hoon, defence secretary, had both held hopes of being promoted. One over-enthusiastic aide had even obtained cardboard boxes from a supermarket and packed his minister's papers on Wednesday. Hoon had been at a Nato meeting in Brussels all day, but was ready to fly back in his RAF jet if he got another job.

"Reshuffles are supposed to be about strengthening the prime minister's position and rewarding your allies," said a government source. "This one has been a complete own goal. Blair has given in to Blunkett and Straw and pissed off people like Hoon and Hewitt."

Hain, shifted to become leader of the Commons, was also understood to be far from happy about his switch, which may be seen by some MPs as a sideways move.

It seemed embarrassing, too, when Morris admitted her inexperience of the arts, even though overseeing them was to be her job. Allies of the chancellor were annoyed that Yvette Cooper, wife of Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's economic adviser, had been overlooked for a big promotion yet again. She moved sideways to a post in John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Yesterday MPs were still struggling to understand what appears to be a hotch-potch, panicky set of appointments. The changes seem to lack the stamp of authority and clarity that Blair once enjoyed.

One minister said the chaos reflected problems in Blair's private office in Downing Street. The extent to which he is exposed to emotional pressure from colleagues may demonstrate how much he misses his former gatekeeper and school friend Anji Hunter, who left Downing Street 18 months ago. "Thatcher said Everyone needs a Willie (Whitelaw), but this week has proved that Tony needs an Anji," said one aide.

Like Milburn, Blair can also feel the heat. As one ally put it: "After Milburn's resignation and the departure of other Blairites, suddenly the notion of Tony making the same decision one day doesn't seem so hard to contemplate."

 
 
 
The Sunday Times - Comment

June 15, 2003

Leader: A dog's breakfast
What malicious spirit possessed Tony Blair when he sat down to plan his reshuffle last week? Perhaps he was in shock over the departure from the government of Alan Milburn, the health secretary. The euro decision, in which he was comprehensively outflanked by Gordon Brown, the chancellor, might have been weighing on his mind. The pressure on the prime minister over the fruitless search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction could be telling. Or perhaps we should just accept that this badly botched reshuffle says everything you need to know about Mr Blair and his government: the prime minister's lack of organisational skills, his inability to bring on new talent, his unwillingness to consult on far-reaching constitutional changes and, above all, his fatal addiction to advancing the careers of cronies.

The departure of Mr Milburn was a huge setback, not because it forced the prime minister into changes he might not have wanted, or because it marked the departure of another Blairite. Many will sympathise with Mr Milburn's desire to spend more time with his family, although some would echo the late Nicholas Ridley, who before leaving the Tory government said the last thing he wanted was to spend more time with his family. It is hard to believe, however, that Mr Milburn would have quit if the billions of taxpayers' money the government is pouring into the NHS were delivering results. He knew progress was achingly slow and he would have to defend a dismal record in front of voters while also facing Treasury sniping.

The prime minister had a choice on who to put into this key post. He could have moved David Blunkett, one of the government's most impressive performers, or chosen Patricia Hewitt or Peter Hain. By now he should have brought on a high-flyer such as Yvette Cooper to take on that sort of role. Instead he settled for John Reid, who in just 69 days as leader of the Commons managed to destroy his credibility with his unsubstantiated claim that "rogue elements" in the security services were undermining the government. Dr Reid, like the hapless Labour party chairman Ian McCartney, is symptomatic of the government's problem. At a time when southern voters are already concerned about the way Labour's tax-and-spend agenda is heading, the last thing they want to hear is a couple of Scottish bruisers repeatedly insisting that black is white.

Reshuffles come and go but big constitutional changes last for decades, even centuries. Was Mr Blair so keen to secure his place in history (denied to him on the euro) that he rushed through the abolition of the post of lord chancellor and the creation of his new department of constitutional affairs? It looks like that. There might be a case for a supreme court to replace the law lords and abolishing, or reforming, the lord chancellor's role. A new system of appointing the judiciary is overdue. But the prime minister's rushed announcement owes more to political expediency and the home secretary's blocking of a new justice ministry than anything more skilfully planned.

Worse, he got rid of one crony, Lord Irvine, and appointed another, Lord "Charlie" Falconer. Neither was an outstanding lawyer who got their position on merit. Neither has ever had to put themselves before the voters. Both had one essential attribute: they were Tony's mates. The sight of the chubby frame of Mr Blair's former flatmate adorning the woolsack, which he will continue to do until the office of lord chancellor is abolished, said much about the random and undemocratic process of this government.

These constitutional changes are occurring when reform of the House of Lords is half-complete and looks to be going nowhere. John Prescott is proposing regional assemblies for the north but not apparently for the south. The anomalies created by Scottish and Welsh devolution have been compounded by the latest confusion, created by the reshuffle, about who speaks for Scotland and Wales in Westminster. It is, as one Labour MP put it, "a dog's breakfast". And after last week, few can have confidence in Mr Blair's ability to sort it out.