Special advisers and spin doctors pinched themselves. William Hague had been scoring points but suddenly the government was making the running once again.
The speech by Gordon Brown attacking Magdalen College and Oxford elitism that kicked things off was premeditated – his network of ministerial friends had been told – but uncharacteristically badly prepared.
It was not just that he got facts wrong; he had not anticipated the political reaction and he certainly had not foreseen the way colleagues would clamber on the bandwagon. But as John Prescott and the others piled in, they found it hard to stop smiling: this is the kind of talk they and their constituency parties love. Margaret Jay does not, admittedly, have to worry about a constituency but for all her grandee appearance she is a political performer to her fingertips and a chance to mix it on a good old fashioned Labour issue was too good to miss.
Fortuitously the horrific case of surgeon Rodney Ledward followed on. First academics, now doctors – here were Tony Blair’s ‘forces of conservatism’ personified. Labour ministers sensed they were touching a popular nerve.
They will need to be careful. Doctors are powerful lobbyists and people do not like the idea of their favourite GP being traduced but institutionally they are vulnerable, as Alan Milburn has grasped and they are far from united. Next it is the turn of those other elite professionals, lawyers and accountants. The Office of Fair Trading investigation of anti-competitive practices looks like being another occasion for high-flown rhetoric.
And yet this episode also served as a reminder of how little love is lost between cabinet colleagues. David Blunkett was reported furious at Brown’s trampling on his patch. The anti Brownites seized every opportunity to bend your ear on how the glitter was finally coming off Gordon. When the cat was away(minding the baby) the rats came out to play.
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