Dishing the Dirt
What struck me most about this weekend's rash of memoirs and interviews with political figures of the recent past was how bad it all looks for Tony Blair.
Yes, I know we're supposed to think that these developments are all highly damaging to Brown. But that's only because of the combination of events, bad election results and, not least, a concerted campaign by embittered Blairites to destabilise him. As Nick Robinson notes, this is merely "the latest of a series of very difficult weeks" for the prime minister.
Any memoir that appeared at this juncture would inevitably have been slotted into the prevailing narrative of a hopelessly floundering Brown government, just as prior to 1997 any previously-unknown Conservative MP exposed as having a mistress or an expense account became the latest standard-bearer for Tory Sleaze. Whereas David Cameron has been so successful in neutralising the whole issue that even something as potentially devastating as Derek Conway's family business was skilfully turned into a tableau of the party's rejection of the bad old days, and the even stranger tale of Bob Spink went virtually unreported.
What, after all, did these memoirs tell us? That Blair and Brown did not always get on? Excuse me while I get over my astonishment. That Brown very much wanted Blair to stand aside, and believed that Blair had agreed to do precisely that? The Deal told the already famous story of that lunch at Granita's on prime time TV some years ago. That Gordon has a tendency to brood, and has always been dependent on a small circle of trusted advisers? Next they'll be revealing that his father was a Church of Scotland minister.
Take John Prescott's act of imagined treachery, as he regurgitates (sorry, John) some of the semi-digested power breakfasts on which he gorged himself in more than a decade at the top. From the Sunday Times interview by Lesley White:
“Towards the end, it got more . . . difficult,” Prescott says carefully. “Tony was frustrated that he wasn’t totally running government. They hadn’t lost control of their emotions. They weren’t about to belt each other. I mean, Gordon could go off like a bloody volcano, but Tony doesn’t like the full-frontal approach. It puts him off his tea.”
In 2002, at Dorneywood, Prescott’s official country residence in Buckinghamshire, Brown and Blair had a furious argument about foundation hospitals – then a new concept, which involved loss of Treasury control – while the deputy prime minister tried to play the conciliatory host. “There was no ‘Have a drink. Sherry, beer . . . ?’ None of that. Gordon came in and just launched into Tony.”
How is that damaging to Brown's reputation rather than Blair's? And how did it get spun as a story that Prescott was urging Blair to sack the chancellor, when at other times he was urging Gordon to resign and pursue his vendetta from the back benches? Brown actually comes out quite well from asides like this:
“Gordon was unfairly treated,” he announces categorically. “But from Tony’s point of view, there were things that [Tony] couldn’t get on with, like joining the euro, because he wasn’t getting the cooperation.”
And what of the famous Granita "deal"? Prescott comes down firmly (or so it seems to me) on Brown's side:
Gordon believed Tony had said he’d go halfway into the second term. Tony denied it.
“I don’t think there was any doubt about it: there was an agreement. It had to be halfway into the second period – you couldn’t do a deal by saying if we win three elections you’ll get the job. There was less and less trust between them.”
Indeed, Prescott describes a meeting in his grace-and-favour apartment in Admiralty House in which Blair definitely promised to go. “He said, ‘Look, you know, I am gonna go’ – and then he didn’t do it. So he reneged on his promise. The feeling of not keeping your promises – it doesn’t encourage cooperation.”
The impression given, in published extracts and in interviews, is of John Prescott as a man who feels more than a little aggrieved at both Blair and Brown, for whom he acted as an indispensable go-between but who both seemed more than a little patronising and kept him out of the loop on significant occasions. With Brown, he was made to feel intellectually an inferior. Blair, by contrast, exhibited a subtle but unmistakeable social snobbery. And that was what really hurt:
The shortage of invitations extended to the personal realm: why, Pauline would ask him, were they both so rarely entertained at Chequers (only twice in a decade)?
“I did ask Tony about it a couple of times, you know, but nothing . . . ” Prescott says. “I used to tell Pauline he didn’t do it [entertaining ministers and their wives]. Then it came out that all these celebrities had been entertained there, and cabinet ministers as well.”
If Gordon Brown were more in control of events, or at the very least had advisers with a better feel for media management, Prescott's revelations could have proved a veritable arsenal of matériel for the final destruction of the political memory of Tony Blair.
Then there's Cherie. She bitches a little about Gordon Brown, of course she does. No-one would have expected any less. The world knows that they did not always see eye to eye, and indeed sometimes couldn't bear to maintain eye contact of any sort. (I particularly relished a little tidbit about why Cherie was so taken with Gielgud's Buckinghamshire mansion: she wanted somewhere "fairly near Chequers", presumably so she could glare at Gordon over the South-East countryside.) But what are we to make of her revelations about her own husband?
We learn today that when Cherie suffered a miscarriage Tony's first thought was about how it might impact on his Iraq strategy. According to The Times, she "was astonished by the ruthless manner in which her husband made public within hours the fact that she had lost the baby she was carrying." This is what she says,
Twenty minutes later he called back. The kids were OK, and he hoped I understood, but he had to tell Alastair. Ah, yes. Alastair. I lay there just waiting. Then the phone again: this time the two of them on the line. There were implications in not going on holiday, they said. It was known that we were going to France. It was all to do with Iraq. There had been talk that we might be sending troops in. If we didn't go on holiday, the concern was that it would send out the wrong messages. They had decided that the best thing was to tell the press that I'd had a miscarriage.
I couldn't believe it. There I was, bleeding, and they were talking about what was going to be the line to the press. I put down the receiver and lay there staring at the ceiling, as pain began to grip.
When I began to come round from the anaesthetic and was being wheeled out of the operating theatre, who should I see but Gary, one of the detectives. He was looking so distressed that I burst into tears, sobbing and saying, “But I really want my husband”. In fact Tony was there, but because of the security issues it was Gary whom I saw first.
As for Tony, his main emotion appeared to be relief. “You know you felt there was something not quite right, Cherie,” he said. “So it's probably all for the best.” I realise now that he was simply trying to make me feel better; it just came out a bit oddly. Of course, he was right, but I was surprised at just how badly it hit me.
What a bastard. But then we remember how Blair and Campbell dumped her in it over the Bristol flats affair and it all falls into place. The man has a splinter of ice in his heart the size of a small arctic glacier.
After all, his reaction to the birth of Euan in 1984 wasn't that dissimilar:
The practicalities of the physical ordeal I had just endured took time to percolate through, however, as in the afternoon he told me that I had a visitor. I was about to have my photograph taken, he informed me: The Northern Echo - Sedgefield MP, wife and newborn son being the theme. I was given a rubber ring to sit on so that at least I could force a smile. As the guy went about his business, focusing and clicking, all I could think was, an appearance before the House of Lords is a doddle compared with this. I am never going to do it again. My last thoughts as I went to sleep that night were of my husband: I hate this man.
That Gordon Brown has made serious errors of judgement in his economic policy is not in doubt. That he has systematically overspent, has squandered the years of plenty in expensive and bureaucratic initiatives, that his desire to micro-manage has wreaked untold damage, all of this I would proclaim. But that doesn't explain why his authority has so suddenly collapsed. Nor do his character flaws, real and imagined. Partly, it's the natural decay of a government which has had its time. Partly, it is a deliberate campaign of character assassination. The media is bored with Labour. Brown himself has proved to be a less-than-inspiring leader. But that's no reason to pine for Tony Blair. As this weekend's revelations should leave no-one in any doubt, he was far, far worse.