In full control

Print edition : July 18, 2003

Prime Minister Tony Blair with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown in London on June 10. - MAX NASH/AP

Six years in power, and yet Prime Minster Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown remain firmly in command in the United Kingdom.

A CABINET reshuffle is usually a chance to see who's coming up and who's on their way out, but Tony Blair's awaited reshuffle produced a major shock as the British Prime Minister used the occasion to announce a fundamental change in the constitutional arrangements of the country by abolishing the office of the Lord Chancellor, Britain's senior law officer. The sheer boldness of the move surprised everyone. There is almost universal support for disentangling the many political strands held by the Lord Chancellor and redistributing his powers in a more modern and rational way. However, major changes are usually heralded by government discussion papers, committees of inquiry and the like. Blair has chosen to abolish a major part of Britain's unwritten Constitution and sort out the resulting confusion as he goes along.

The Lord Chancellor's office has evolved since its inception 800 years ago. The occupant of the office presides over the House of Lords seated on the woolsack - a symbol of the days when the wool trade was the source of economic power - from where he appoints judges and heads the Law Lords, the highest appeal court in the land. The Lord Chancellor not only is a Cabinet Minister but is paid more than the Premier and ranks third in the realm in precedence, behind the Monarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury. His office has received perhaps the highest accolade afforded to any British institution by being satirised in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Just who will eventually preside over all these functions is not really clear, but the interregnum will be managed under the auspices of a new "Ministry of Constitutional Affairs". Bold as the move may be, Blair has kept the control of events within his narrow clique of what has come to be known as "Tony's cronies". The outgoing Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, was Blair's head of Chambers when Blair was a young barrister; his replacement, the new Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer, shared rooms with Blair in the junior days studying for the Bar.

However, the constitutional changes and confusions did not end there. Despite the devolution of power to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, there have remained the somewhat anachronistic Cabinet positions of Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland.

Tony Blair has given the duties of these positions to existing Cabinet posts, making it clear that the post goes with the incumbent and not with the office itself. While the brief of Scottish Secretary has been given to Transport Minister Alistair Darling, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, the Welsh job has gone to Peter Hain, the new Leader of the House, an original South African who sits for a Welsh constituency.

Hain is an interesting figure who made his name as an activist in the anti-apartheid movement where his advocacy of direct action to disrupt Springbok sporting events gave him a radical veneer he has subsequently been eager to cast off when he held junior posts in the Foreign Office. He does, however, continue to be something of a political maverick and is emerging as the Cabinet's "licensed leftie", as exemplified by a recent spat when he pre-released a speech arguing for higher taxes for higher earners.

"No tax rises" has been seen as the key to New Labour's successes. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and Blair have taken great pains to shed Labour's image as the "tax-and-spend" party and both were reported to be livid with Hain's rather modest suggestion that the very rich could perhaps pay just a little more. Hain retracted his statement, but several observers see the spat as a clever move by the nimble Hain to establish his credentials in the traditional Labour ranks in the stakes for the inevitable post-Blair leadership.

Out in front in that race remains Gordon Brown, whose much-heralded statement on Britain's position on entry into the European Single Currency (euro) regime proved to be the damp squib most pundits expected. Brown's message was a dour "not yet but eventually".

It is quite astonishing to see how much the seemingly all-powerful Blair is in fact boxed in by his capable and notoriously ambitious Chancellor. Brown has set out five tests for Britain's euro membership, which amount to saying that the United Kingdom will join when Gordon Brown judges it to be prudent.

Blair's room for manoeuvre is blocked elsewhere too. Apparently, he wanted to boost his own European credentials, which are badly in need of repair after the Europe-United States split over Iraq, by appointing a special "European Minister". But this was blocked by the stubbornness of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Likewise, his attempts to rationalise the government's law departments more fundamentally were rebuffed. Many other counties divide the law's constitutional duties between the Ministries of Justice and the Interior, but Home Secretary David Blunkett was not for having his fief halved.

Indeed, Blair's only room for manoeuvre came with the totally unexpected resignation of his political ally, Alan Milburn, as Health Secretary. Milburn was widely seen as the most likely standard-bearer of the New Labour post-Blair, not least because he is seen as someone who can and does stand up to Gordon Brown. Milburn resigned to spend more time with his young family, and a perplexed media, after a couple of days' frantic search for ulterior motives, admitted that "more time with the family" was not a euphemism but the truth. His place was taken by John Read, a political apparatchik of the highest order but no serious contender for the eventual succession.

After six years in government, the Blair-Brown axis is firmly in control and the rest of the Ministers are very much also-rans.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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