Labour's love lost in Britain

Prime minister forced to solve current party strains to meetfuture problems.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is returning home from a two-week Indian Ocean vacation a severely chastened leader.

Deep political rifts have appeared within his government, and he is under pressure to swerve away from political modernization and take his currently pro-capitalist Labour Party back to its traditional socialist roots.

Amid an eruption of public scandal and open bickering among senior Cabinet colleagues, the politician who came to power with a record parliamentary majority 19 months ago is being urged to rethink his priorities and abandon media manipulation as a tool of government.

His heavy reliance on spin doctors has come under attack, most notably from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who says that in future he will insist on Mr. Blair "getting away from rhetoric and back on to the substance of government."

Across the British media there is comment on a new balance of forces forming within the Blair government.

Mr. Prescott and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown appear set to strike an alliance aimed at returning Labour to its traditional stance as a champion of the underdog, suspicious of big business and friendly toward trade unions.

Meanwhile, the opposition Conservative Party is gleeful at the shakeup. Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram said Jan. 4 the Labour government was "coming apart at the seams."

That may be an exaggeration, but Blair's aides admit privately that the government has just gone through its biggest crisis yet and has lost some of its most important and influential figures. This could presage difficulties for the administration when the annual budget is presented in March, or if the euro, the global economy, Northern Ireland, or other issues should test the government's cohesion.

The sudden turnaround in Blair's hitherto rosy political fortunes came just before Christmas when Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson, the prime minister's chief adviser on strategy and tactics, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had accepted a large housing loan from a fellow government minister and failed to declare it to parliamentary authorities.

The departure of the powerful but not widely loved Mr. Mandelson triggered the resignation of Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson, the Labour millionaire who had supplied the loan.

Mandelson's friends alleged that details of the loan had been leaked maliciously by another government "spin doctor" - Charlie Whelan, chief spokesman for Chancellor Brown. Mr. Whelan denied the allegation but, under political pressure, announced his own resignation Jan. 4.

The British media had spent the previous two weeks giving readers details of what political journalists had known for months - that Whelan, in trying to promote Brown's interests, had been offering reporters derogatory background briefings about the activities of Mandelson and other ministers.

Political analyst Hugo Young says that, as well as exposing divisions in Labour's ranks, the crisis has demonstrated a serious weakness in Blair's style of government. Decisionmaking has been "informal and usually focused on himself," with the Cabinet having only a marginal role in determining policy.

In the wake of Whelan's departure, Alastair Campbell, Blair's chief spokesman, is believed to be insisting that in future all government press officers should coordinate their statements and forgo what in the corridors of the House of Commons is being called "serial assassination" between departments.

Blair's tendency to center decisions on himself and not take much account of what his ministers say was exposed this week in a curiously revealing way.

The head teacher of the London school attended by Blair's two sons complained that, when classes resumed this week, the boys would be absent without permission because Blair had taken them along on vacation to the Seychelles Islands.

A few days earlier, David Blunkett, Blair's education secretary, had issued a statement advising parents against allowing family vacations to clash with their children's attendance at school.

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