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December 16, 2002

The Court of King Tony, rotting from within

All governments, not only in democracies, have to remain in close touch with the people, from whom their power comes. When court life reaches its highest stage of development, its most artistic and refined, one can usually hear the rumble of revolution behind the chatter of the courtiers.

The London of Van Dyck, the Paris of Beaumarchais and the St Petersburg of Fabergi were highly cultivated societies, but had come close to their last days. One should never trust Camelot. The Downing Street of the Blair period has increasingly become a court rather than an office. It has all the characteristics. Charm is very important to it, the easy smile, the flattering word. It is not a place for common people. It has its intriguers, its money men, its fixers, its beautiful people and its not so beautiful people. It revolves around the ever expanding patronage of the Prime Minister, greater now than at any time since the 18th century. As is inevitable when there is so much patronage, there is a faint, sour smell of corruption, like a bad odour from the drains.

This is much the most personal Government that I can remember, with a complex set of relationships which no outsider seems properly to understand. There has been nothing like it since Margot Asquith left Downing Street. If the Blair Project ever becomes a set subject for university examinations, professors of Blair studies may set questions such as this: “Examine the role of Anji Hunter in mediating the Mandelson-Campbell relationship in the years before the 1997 general election.” Tony Blair sometimes shows an Ottoman ruthlessness; one suspects that at any moment the most favoured courtier may disappear through an oubliette into the Bosphorus. It happened to Peter Mandelson.

Cherie Blair’s misfortunes have arisen because she behaved in a way that dramatised the detachment of the court from the people. “Two Jags” was a permissible joke at the expense of John Prescott, who is the clown at the Court of King Tony. The court fool can get away with being foolish. “Two flats” demonstrated that the royal couple thought they should live in the style of their wealthiest courtiers.

To the ordinary voters, including ordinary middle-class parents who helped their children through university, it is not customary to buy a flat for the student years, let alone two expensive flats. Students rent rather than buy, even nowadays, except in the wealthiest families. Students who come from celebrity homes do not usually want to live in a style that may cut them off from the rest of student life. It was particularly unfortunate that the purchase of the flats came at the same time as the threat of top-up fees.

There is nothing illegal about buying a flat, or flats, for one’s son. There can, however, be something politically insensitive if a Prime Minister or his wife makes the purchase. That particularly applies to a Labour Prime Minister; the Labour Party believes in equality in education. It did not help that a notorious confidence trickster, engaged to Mrs Blair’s style guru, was used as an intermediary. Confidence tricksters have always been attracted to court life.

It is not surprising that Mrs Blair should have panicked when she was told the Mail newspapers were on to the story. From that point on, her answers seem to have been disingenuous, to a greater or lesser degree. I have some sympathy with her. She may have felt she had let down her husband and her party. She was exposed to the full force of press scrutiny, even if she had brought it on herself. That is a trauma even for the toughest professional politicians; it must have been agony for her.

In most courts personal relations are liable to become extremely intense. After what had happened, and the agony it has caused her, one must wonder whether the relationship between Cherie Blair and Alastair Campbell can ever be restored. He feels that she misled him and she must feel that he briefed against her, humiliating her by telling how he had read her e-mails.

Two newspaper groups have run most aggressively with this story; the Mail and the Mirror. The Daily Mirror has used the stronger language, though the Mail had the scoops first. Paul Routledge, who was an excellent and fair-minded left-wing Labour correspondent for The Times in the militant 1970s, was on vigorous form. “To support new Labour is to endorse the lies, corruption and deceit that have become the hallmarks of Blair’s presidential style of government.” That was his Daily Mirror column last Friday.

The Editor, Piers Morgan, ran a leading article which commented that “the Blairs and their PR team, led by the increasingly demented Alastair Campbell, can lambast newspapers as much as they like . . . we can’t even trust the Blairs to tell the truth about a conman acting as their financial adviser”.

The Daily Mirror has historically been the leading pro-Labour tabloid. At present it is the leading anti-Blair tabloid.

How can we expect the story to develop from this point on? Unless there is a credible new allegation, the immediate story is likely to die away. It will continue to be criticism of Cherie Blair, but it will be balanced by some public sympathy. Even those who regard her conduct as a serious blunder may feel she has paid a high price for it. Perhaps Alastair Campbell is another matter. The journalists have, after all, been lied to and some of them blame him for that.

At some point Mr Campbell has to re-enter ordinary life, always difficult for a man who has made enemies. At present his memoirs and his contacts would give him a high market value. He has, however, been an essential character in the Blair court, the hard man who has held the team together. Perhaps he is indispensable. The court would look very different and perhaps less effective without him.

The real tension inside the Government machine is, however, that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It always has been. Gordon Brown thinks that he ought to be Prime Minister, and still hopes that he will become Prime Minister some happy day. He has a strong following in the Labour Party, which seems to be getting still stronger. Although he was a partner in the new Labour project, and was originally the senior partner, he is now the de facto leader of old Labour as well as a section of new Labour himself. He also has useful support in the press, including the Daily Mirror, at least so long as Piers Morgan remains the Editor.

Gordon Brown is not a politician in the Camelot mould. He is the tough professional who distrusts the smooth-talking Oxbridge types, as Lyndon Johnson distrusted the smooth-talking Harvard types of the Kennedy era. At the moment Brown is the only possible successor to the Labour leadership. Anything which weakens Blair strengthens Brown, and raises his hopes.

Yet there is a disturbing trend in the British, as there is in the world economy; the Chancellor has had to give the Treasury equivalent of a profits warning. His forecasts and his policies have been too optimistic. The borrowing requirement is #20 billion too high. If there is a downturn in the housing market, that will affect consumer confidence, employment and the budget revenue. The Labour Party has been able to win two successive landslide elections on Gordon Brown’s reputation for economic competence.

Obviously any weakening of the economy would damage the Government. It would equally damage Gordon Brown’s claim to succeed to the leadership.

So far it has always been a mistake to underestimate Tony Blair’s political skills. But they no longer seem to be quite so formidable. He is the man responsible for the strange detachment which now exists between the Government and the public. On this occasion, it may be Cherie Blair who made the mistakes, but the reason they matter is that they pointed to a false consciousness which seems to permeate Downing Street. Six years of office, and the power of patronage, seem to have gone to Tony Blair’s head. The public does not feel comfortable with that.

The Blair administration is beginning to look mortal. The Blair-Brown split looks as dangerous as the Asquith-Lloyd George split was for the Liberals. Those who live by spin can die by spin. The public and the Labour Party itself dislike the sense of superiority of the people they have voted into power.

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