Jack the Knife goes for the clearout kill

WHEN Jack McConnell nipped into Number 10 on Monday for a quick chat, did the Prime Minister advise on axe-wielding? Not since the great Blair purge of 1998, when Brownites went down like ninepins, has there been such a clearout of ministers whose loyalties were seen as suspect.

Jack the Knife has gone for the kill. There was no magnanimity in yesterday’s reshuffle. McLeishites Angus MacKay and Jackie Baillie are out. Cabinet strongman Tom McCabe, whose various homes have occupied many column inches, loses his job and his ministerial housing allowance.

Mr McConnell’s sole concession to the Brownite tendency has been to leave Wendy Alexander in place. To eject someone of her intellect and energy would have been an act of self-sabotage. The former general secretary and the former researcher have rubbed along together in the Scottish Labour family for 20 years; whatever their differences, Ms Alexander is a known quantity. Besides, Henry McLeish kept Mr McConnell in his cabinet after a close-fought leadership contest. Why eliminate a rival who never left the starting gate?

After years of Brownite hegemony, Scottish Labour has a leader who owes nothing to the Chancellor. For this quarrelsome family it is a big break, a culture change, and yesterday’s reshuffle did little to soften the impact. With the exception of Wendy Alexander and Malcolm Chisholm, an obvious choice for the health brief, the new cabinet is full of "Jack’s mates", most of whom have vast experience in the Labour Party but no experience of government.

Personalities aside, the key reshuffle question is zoological. Does the new First Minister aim to run a Blairite, as opposed to a Brownite, administration? Has that rare creature, the Scottish Blairite, a chance to breed at last?

On a casual sighting, the new First Minister looks like a Blairite. He talks the Blairite talk, about partnerships and joined-up thinking, e-government and one-stop shops. He speaks the same language as his Westminster counterparts - Alan Milburn at the Treasury, Estelle Morris at education.

But behind the scenes, there is intense debate about what species the Great Crested McConnell really represents. This can be confusing for the lay observer. "Jack is definitely not a Blairite," says a Labour classification expert. "It’s just that he’s not a Brownite."

Perplexed? The difference between Brownites and Blairites, in the House of Commons or the Scottish parliament, is more tribal than ideological. While Mr McConnell is nothing like Henry McLeish in his manner, friends and view of the world, their politics are by no means dissimilar.

Blairites, for example, are supposed to be keen on bringing business into public services - yet Gordon Brown is determined to see private firms running the London Underground, and yesterday took delivery of an NHS report from Derek Wanless, former chief executive of NatWest.

But if Mr McConnell were a zealous Blairite in the accepted sense, we might expect him to go beyond public-private partnerships for school buildings and bring in management consultants to run the schools themselves.

His predecessor showed no interest in such experiments. A passage about involving the private sector in health and education was deleted from the Scottish version of the Labour general election manifesto. It was assumed that Mr McLeish had requested the opt-out, nervous of reaction from public-sector unions and local authorities.

In fact it was Mr McConnell, together with the former health minister, Susan Deacon, who insisted on the change, arguing that high-profile wooing of the private sector could be disruptive when a deal on teachers’ pay and conditions had just been struck and an NHS plan was under way.

A dedicated Blairite would not have been deterred by such details. But a dedicated Blairite would not have made Cathy Jamieson, a Campaign for Socialism stalwart, minister for education. As Mr McConnell pointed out, she has a track record of working with young people in care. She is also a committed trade unionist. How comfortable will she be with the executive’s plans for prison privatisation, which will meet fierce trade-union resistance?

Nor would a dedicated Blairite be as tender with local authorities as Mr McConnell seems inclined to be. The former leader of Stirling does not share the bias against councils that flourishes in Number 10. He has refrained from intervening in the education crisis in the Borders; an English minister such as Stephen Byers would have sent in McKinsey’s like a shot. He cheerfully handed back St Mary’s school, Dunblane, to council control. His friend Andy Kerr, the new finance and public services minister, led a backbench rebellion against awarding local authority road maintenance contracts to private firms.

Keepers of the Blairite flame will point to another McConnell chum, Frank McAveety, a rare Scottish supporter of elected mayors - one of the Prime Minister’s personal causes - and a keen advocate of council voting reform. But Mr McAveety, to general surprise, did not get a job yesterday. Even if he had, the new First Minister has shown little appetite for mayors, while "progress" towards voting reform is already written into the partnership agreement with the Liberal Democrats.

In short, if Mr McConnell is a Blairite, he has been genetically modified to suit Scottish conditions. This species is not breeding but mutating. He is too friendly to councils, to trade unions, to left-wingers. In certain lights, he can look almost like a Brownite - except that he has the wrong friends.

Now the friends are running the show. Yesterday’s appointments suggest that Mr McConnell is determined to consolidate his power base and untroubled by charges of cronyism. Even with Ms Alexander still in post, he will be accused of entrenching ancient feuds and sending talented enemies into exile.

The irony is that the new First Minister would agree with the Chancellor on most issues. With his general secretary’s background, he has a stronger feel than many MSPs for the coherence of Labour policy. While it may be too late to scrap Henry McLeish’s promise of universal free personal care for the elderly, Mr McConnell would probably have preferred Gordon Brown’s targeted approach.

What is more, the new First Minister will attack the SNP with greater relish than Mr McLeish could ever muster. Brownites throw at him the lazy insult "Nat", seeing his pro-devolution history as a slippery slope to independence. Yet Labour’s new Scottish leader will work as hard as any Brownite to fight off John Swinney in the next Holyrood election. He just has a different defensive strategy - to campaign as New Labour with a Scottish accent.

Mr McConnell has spent the last five years on the wrong side of the Blairite-Brownite fence. Now he is on the right side and the Brownites are howling in outer darkness. It must be personally satisfying, but it is politically dangerous. The new First Minister had a chance to broker a historic compromise between his party’s feuding factions for the good of devolved government, a cause he believes in. Yesterday was not a promising start.