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Matrix Friday, 16 October, 1998, 19:14 GMT 20:14 UK
Number 10
Tony Blair
Blair: changing the constitutional landscape
When Tony Blair delivered his government first "Annual Report" to the voters, direct from the garden of No.10 in late July, he did so in the presence of cabinet ministers and their departmental permanent secretaries. It was a clear sign that, after 18 months in power the new prime minister is determined to use the Downing St machine to impose his will across government.

In the new seven-week Radio 4 series, The Matrix of Power, political analysts examine how the New Labour government is changing the constitutional landscape, in Whitehall, in the regions and in its deepening relationship with Brussels. In September, Michael White, the Political Editor of The Guardian started the series by looking at No.10 itself.

All incoming prime ministers adapt Britain's unwritten constitution to their needs. But Tony Blair is accused of centralising the system, of importing record numbers of political acolytes and of gradually politicising the civil service.

Blair insiders admit much of the indictment. Cabinet government is a feudal relic which has not functioned since the 60s, they say. The departmental "baronies" must be brought to heel and the old feudal systems transformed into a Napoleonic one - driven from the centre.

The programme includes interviews with key figures from the Thatcher and Major years who share some of Blair's concerns, but also warn of the limitations of the system - and the dangers of Blair's strategy.

Sir Bernard Ingham
Sir Bernard Ingham: critical of Labour's spin-doctors
Sir Bernard Ingham, Lady Thatcher's press secretary, for 11 years, believes in keeping wayward ministers "on message" but blames rival spin-doctors for much of the trouble besetting Labour. His successor, Alastair Campbell, is, he says, upsetting the balance.

David Willetts, a member of the Downing St think tank before he became a Tory MP, warns against Labour's efforts to get the political appointees working with the civil servants instead of in competition - producing joint memos instead of the "Battle of the Memos", according to Denis Kavanagh, professor of politics at Liverpool University.

Other outside experts speak of Blair's authoritarian instincts and the feeling among key aides that they won power, not through election, but through two coups, capturing first the Labour Party, then, with the help of the media, the electorate at large.

But Jill Rutter, an ex-Downing St official believes Blair is ''rather sensible'' to seek greater co-ordination and greater efficiency from his "baronies.''

Former Downing St officials describe what it is like to serve the prime minister in a small office-cum-home where the staff is still fewer than 100 and no doors are locked.

Lady Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher: "flooded" with paperwork
Sir Charles Powell tells how Mrs Thatcher came to meet Mr Gorbachev, John Whittingdale describes how she would snatch the phone to berate an official for a briefing note that displeased her. David Willetts explains how the Treasury tried to keep her in the dark - while the Foreign Office deliberately "flooded" her with paperwork.

But they also describe how power melts away from a failing prime minister, so that what would once have been treated as a top priority becomes merely the "opening bid" in a continuing negotiation as John Major struggles to stay afloat in the mid-90s.

Mr Blair is seizing his moment while his power is virtually unchallenged, creating a new cabinet enforcer in Jack Cunningham and giving new responsibilities to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson - his ''chief whip" in Whitehall.

Personal access is vital and success at the centre depends on personal relations as much as the machinery of government. But that is a two-edged weapon, Mr Blair is warned.

Programme 2 - Parliaments...

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