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Blair v Brown obscures loss of grassroots members

Gary Kent looks beyond recent resignations.

New Labour's Black Christmas - a roller-coaster ride of recriminations, resignations, baronial rivalries and juicy revelations - excited the incestuous circle of political insiders who spin, leak and report on each other. But outside the political "Beltway", it reinforced a weariness with politicians. Polls don't register much change in Labour's commanding lead - probably mainly due to that pathetic state of the Tory Opposition. Labour should worry that its core vote is slipping away, along with many grassroots members.

Black Christmas also obscured concerns about the morality and effectiveness of US-UK military actions in Iraq plus the Irish peace process and the onset of the Euro.

But what real difference has it made to the Government's direction? Whilst Tony Blair was away, Gordon Brown and John Prescott briefly raised the pale pink standard of Keynesianism - somewhat radical given New Labour's neo-monetarism, but hardly what some called a bloodless coup against Blair.

Blair then praised Brown but pointedly reminded us that they jointly devise economic strategy. So we shouldn't believe that Brown is a closet left-winger.

Forget the tale of who leaked details of Peter Mandelson's unusual home loan. The real mystery is whether there are major differences between Brown and Blair.

One view is that politically, if not personally, there is not a cigarette paper between them - a view confirmed by Brown's recent conformist contributions. Another view sees Brown as a social democrat whilst Blair is a middle class liberal. They jointly revised Old Labour and have managed to stick together in good economic and political themes. But once events start to slip, such differences could come to the fore. Brown certainly has strong left-wing supporters who feel he might one day challenge Blairism.

A prominent example of a policy that could prise open tensions is tax policy. Labour fought the last election promising to keep basic tax rates. Blair maintains that this is not a temporary compromise but one that he wishes to carry into the next manifesto and administration. When presented with this viewpoint, Brown responded that nothing was set in concrete. Whether this is playing to the gallery, a Chancellor's normal caution or presages a big fight uncertain.

Improving social provision requires mobilising opinion in favour of fair taxes - 'can pay, want to pay?'

We also need an authoritative insider's account of the so-far concealed compromises and tensions within New Labour Step forward Charlie Whelan?.

It is thought that Blair was unhappy with many policies inherited from John Smith. These include the Minimum Wage, union rights and Scottish Devolution. Many Ministers are unhappy with cosying up to the Liberals and realigning the centre-left through Proportional Representation. Prescott seems willing to resign rather than share power with Paddy Ashdown.

Black Christmas began this Government's mid-term period. After the honeymoon comes the reassessment. Suddenly, a window of opportunity opened for people to promote long suppressed policies. MPs and activists were emboldened and questioned whether private lobbying would ever achieve anything. Moderate and left-wing opinion - from Roy Hattersley to Ken Livingstone - appears to be coalescing around what might once have been seen as a rather tame social democratic approach.

Hence Blair's desperation to highlight initiatives to show a Government in tune with the people's priorities and to keep backbenchers sweet.

Harold Macmillan's 'dangerous events' are looming. Watch out for local, European, Scottish and Welsh election results. Labour could lose 2,000 council seats and have to share power with the LibDems in Scotland. Will the Millenium Dome and its associated tube line be ready on time? Are the doomsayers right in fearing the worst of the millennim computer bug? Will world recession blow the Government off course? Will Labour's closeness to so many business leaders rebound on their reputation for probity? A republican atrocity in London could finish bipartisanship. Delivery of improvements in public services is the name of the game. Labour cannot keep blaming the Tories for crises in public services.

Continuing debate on Mandelson's possible rehabilitation merely keeps Labour's ideological and personal sores open and liberally sprinkled with salt.

But the Government's big problem is that it still lacks a coherent ideological perspective. As the Times' estimable commentator, Michael Gove acutely puts it: 'there are only personalities, trying to find the Third Way to a Second Term. But without First Principles.' Unless Blairism consolidates its political and ideological base, factional frictions may return to haunt New Labour and fill its ideological vacuum. Who know, next time Brown's head could roll.

This article first appeared in Fortnight magazine for which Gary Kent is Westminster correspondent.

1999