Books

Servants of the People:the inside story of New Labour By Andrew Rawnsley

Publisher: Penguin. ISBN:0140278508.562 pages.£7.99 (paperback - hardback first edition available).

So this is politics. This is the world of power and secrets inhabited by men - invariably - of stature and high intellect.

Thank you, Andrew Rawnsley, because we never have to take it seriously again.

For Servants of the People: the inside story of New Labour, now out in paperback and updated to include the last election, is a right rollicking read which owes more to the tradition of the scurrilous political cartoonist than the erudite historian. It is tragi-comedy, It is classic farce, It is soap and It is almost impossible to put down.

You can't quite believe it - Rawnsley paints critical scenes with such lavish quotes that you can only wonder why he wasn't ever apprehended with his ear glued to the keyhole - yet somehow it all rings only too true.

The amazing thing is that New Labour has got anything done at all considering the spin-doctoring, in-fighting, prevarication and sometimes sheer bungling that appears to have gone on.

Lords of Misrule they appear to be indeed, and, the book invites you to think, little different from the Tories before them, in spite of all their protestations.

Central to the story, as Rawnsley tells it, is the battle between the prime minister and his chancellor. None of the lesser ministers has much stature beside them; some you could almost feel sorry for, if they were not so wickedly caricatured.Harriet Harman, forced by Gordon Brown to choose between two Tory cuts Labour had attacked in opposition, is the architect of her own downfall by her slavish obedience.

The graphic descriptions of her 'mud-wrestling'with Frank Field - who wrote Blair notes complaining 'you have chained me to a maniac' - deprive her of a sympathy vote.

Frank Dobson, on the other hand, was not pushed into the political suicide of opposing Ken Livingstone for mayor of London, as most of the world believed, according to Rawnsley.

But he decided to stand so late in the day, after insisting so often that he did not want to step down from health, that nobody believed his hand had not been forced.

He cuts a sad but courageous figure towards the end when Blair offers to parachute Mo Mowlam in. 'Someone's got to lose. It might as well be me, ' he says.

Dobson is bearded old Labour with a filthy sense of humour and a private conviction that the election waiting-list pledge was 'bloody crazy'.

Alan Milburn is 'tough and intelligent, with a hip-rolling swagger and a soft Geordie accent which made him sound less of an automaton than many of the Blairites'.

Rawnsley gives Milburn credit for persuading Blair that the NHS needed serious money in the autumn of 1999.

But it was two elderly women patients who clinched it that winter.Mavis Skeet was a 73year-old whose cancer had become inoperable after her operation was cancelled four times in five weeks because of bed shortages.

Ruth Winston Fox, 87, had to wait 13 hours for a bed in a mixed-sex ward.Her angry son, Professor Robert Winston, told the New Statesman that Britain's health service was 'much the worst in Europe'.

The headlines were devastating. The money was forthcoming. President of the Royal College of Physicians George Alberti, we are told, watching the Budget, banged the table in delight.

The book would be worth reading if only for the Bernie Ecclestone, tobacco sponsorship and Formula One saga - a classic tale of political skullduggery. But do not read it with any illusions, because they will be shattered long before you reach the final chapter.