View from the House

His response to bad election results, poor polls and the mood of carping complaint surrounding the government is calm reassurance. The benefits of Labour policy will show through in due course, when parents, hospital patients and even old age pensioners will show their gratitude. Until then, no panic in Number Ten.

But does that go for his cabinet? His colleagues are fighting that clammy feeling caused by impending electoral loss. Their instinct is to reach out to the ‘heartlands’. John Prescott has announced his conversion to elected regional assemblies, which play well in Hull and Newcastle and other Labour strongholds. Alan Milburn is just about emptying bedpans himself in his rush to secure health improvements, and his extra billions for the National Health Service are already flowing.

For David Blunkett the fact recent editions of the Times Education Supplement have been the fattest ever produced, replete with ads for new teachers, is a welcome sign. Peter Mandelson, who is after all the MP for Hartlepool, did not make his controversial pro-euro speech by accident: it was a bid to show the manufacturers and their employees that he cares.

The consensus is that, thanks to John Towers and the clever way in which Ford made its announcements over Dagenham, Stephen Byers survived the rupture of the British car industry without more than a few dents in his fenders. But he, too, is a North East MP who fancies himself for advancement in the next re-shuffle. What he desperately needs is to be able to give the impression of active policy for industry, especially manufacturing, without radically revising the Blairite hands-off approach.

His political problem is that he cannot do a Mandelson and speak out on joining the euro as a way to ease the burden of sterling on industry. This is a cabinet, still, which is divided between those whose basic allegiance is to Blair and those who would follow Gordon Brown, with a few stragglers (Mo Mowlam for example) in the middle.

Stephen Byers got his job at DTI on the understanding he observed the balance and talking openly about the euro is not something Gordon Brown is prepared to tolerate. Mandelson, because of his position in Ulster and his closeness to Blair, is licensed to deviate. Byers is not.

  • David Walker writes for the Guardian

Related reading