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Wednesday, January 13, 1999 Published at 08:36 GMT

UK Politics

Blair faces own House of Cards

Ian Richardson as the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart

When was the last time you set out to stir up the workplace with some scurrilous gossip or a damaging recollection?

Probably not as recently as a Cabinet minister's close adviser or ex-wife.

Whether its Robin's antipathy to Gordon, John's disdain for Geoffrey, or almost everyone's mistrust of Peter, the bitter rivalry of government has received almost unrivalled public airing in recent weeks.

[ image: Margaret Cook: Criticised Cabinet relations but fuelled the fire]
Margaret Cook: Criticised Cabinet relations but fuelled the fire
Margaret Cook, former wife of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, summed up the public's prevailing mood, calling ministers' relationships "very unstable, childish and punitive".

"It's playground politics. They just want each other's jobs," opines Dr Cook in her new kiss-and-tell memoir. She goes on to fuel the fire with revelations about her ex-husband's aversion to named Cabinet colleagues.

Sound familiar? To fans of the best-selling novel and hit television drama House of Cards, it should.

The book's author and one-time political high-flyer Michael Dobbs sees a definite case of life imitating art.

His famed satire centres on the fictional character of Francis Urquhart, a cold-hearted, conniving politician who plots a ruthless path to the top at the expense of Cabinet colleagues.

Eerie parallels

"In House of Cards Francis Urquhart is going around undermining his colleagues by underhand means. That's exactly what's happening here," says Mr Dobbs of the latest manoeuvring among Tony Blair's ministers.

Rivalry and politics have always gone hand-in-hand, helping perpetuate a healthy frisson, he says. But, of late, he detects a more pernicious streak.

"What surprises me with this government is that it has happened so soon and that it seems to lack an ideological basis. With the Tories it was a fundamental question of policy at stake - wets against dries; pros against anti-Europeans."

"But here there is not a great issue over which they're competing. It's all about personalities."

[ image: Cecil Parkinson: A rival and friend of Norman Tebbit]
Cecil Parkinson: A rival and friend of Norman Tebbit
He acknowledges "healthy" infighting in Margaret Thatcher's government, in particular clashes between Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit.

Mr Dobbs, a one-time Conservative Party deputy chairman, says: "It is possible to carry on firstly being friends and secondly being close colleagues in government."

Mrs Thatcher's press secretary, Bernard Ingham, indulged in briefing journalists against some members of the then-government, he says. However, he was "the exception to the rule".

Tough lesson for Labour

Mr Blair has signalled his will to stem the mud-slinging by focusing more on policy issues. His press secretary, Alastair Campbell, is expected to take tougher action to stop the brickbats.

"But it's been going on too long. He will find it very difficult to stop," says Mr Dobbs.

[ image: Rhodri Morgan:
Rhodri Morgan: "The major source of instability has been removed"
Labour backbencher Rhodri Morgan sees a rosier outcome.

He takes issue with the belief that ministers are all jockeying for the tops jobs and says the Cabinet's reputation for internal sniping has been exaggerated.

Efforts to quell the back-biting will succeed, largely thanks to the resignation of Peter Mandelson, "the major source of instability" in the Cabinet, he says.

"The fear that Mandelson would succeed Blair was anathema to the old guard. Now that has gone Tony Blair must work for as greater sense of stability."

But with speculation that the Mr Mandelson will return sooner rather than later - some reports put him back in the Cabinet within a year - the lasting peace so vital for stability may simply turn out to be only a temporary ceasefire.

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