Friday, October 06, 2006

Labour's Power Tansition

‘The public will let you have what you deserve but seldom what you really, really want.’

(Lord) Cecil Parkinson on his personal version of Parkinson’s Law,
Interview with author, 2001).


The Alleged ‘Coup’ and its Provenance
It was alleged in the autumn of 2006 that Gordon Brown, frustrated after years of waiting to inherit the premiership, had instigated a ‘coup’ to bring Tony Blair down. The details were briefly as follows: on Tuesday 5th September, a letter signed by 15 Labour MPs led by Sion Simon and Chris Bryant, formerly bywords for slavish loyalty to their leader, asked him to step down. It seems their letter had been sparked off by an interview Blair gave to The Times in which he refused to be specific about when he was going to go. The Guardian reported that another letter, signed by 80 Labour MPs was in the process of being sent. The next day seven of the signatories resigned their unpaid positions as parliamentary private secretaries, the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder but one for which ambitious politicians vigorously compete in order to show their paces and progress higher. The apparently timed nature of their going- one every thirty minutes- made some commentators suspect choreography by some guiding hand; as Brown kept eloquently silent during a period of intense media activity, many suspected that hand was his. Why was Labour, only elected for its third term just over a year earlier, suffering a nervous breakdown over its most successful ever leader? The reasons are complex and go back to the very beginnings of New Labour’s provenance.

1. The Granita ‘Agreement’: In 1994, shortly after John Smith, the previous Labour leader died, the two leading ‘modernizers’ in the party and obvious candidates for Smith’s crown, met to discuss the situation in the(now defunct) Granita restaurant in Islington. No notes were kept from this meeting so much speculation surrounds its content but clearly the subject of the succession was on the agenda. Supporters of Brown claim while Brown agreed not to stand Blair agreed that, if becoming PM, he would step down after a while to allow Brown, the then ‘senior partner’ in the young tyros’ friendship, to take his turn. Blair was brilliant as a communicator but tended to defer to Brown on policy questions. What does seem to have been decided was that, as Blair’s Chancellor, Brown would have virtual free rein over the domestic agenda. In practice of course Blair did not stand down though, rumour has it, Brown constantly reminded him of his obligation and came to bear him considerable ill-will. The resultant ‘feud’ between the two men is said to have caused many internal problems with ‘the most economically illiterate prime minister since Alec Douglas Home’ according to Simon Jenkins, (Sunday Times, 17th September 2006) and a man who transformed Treasury control into a kind of de facto domestic premiership. Blair, not to mention his wife Cherie, was said to have hated the peremptory way Brown treated him in front of colleagues and maybe this helps explain why he kept Brown hanging on for so long. The brooding Scot was said to have been incensed when Blair apparently reneged on an agreement to go at the end of 2004 in the autumn of which, possibly as a compensatory sop to Brown, Blair announced that he would not contest the next election expected in 2009. However, this placatory move did not stop the sniping or the rumblings among supporters of both men, especially when Labour began to plummet in the polls during 2006. Most commentators assumed this meant he would go well before that date and he later agreed in 2006 that he would leave ‘ample’ time for his successor to establish himself before fighting the coming election. But there were many reasons why elements in the party wanted him to go earlier or at least to state a timetable for his departure.

2. David Cameron Makes Conservatives Electable Again: In December 2005 David Cameron won the contest to lead the Conservatives on a ‘centrist’, reforming ticket. Dealing in generalities rather than policy specifics, he shifted the direction of policy away from traditional Tory concerns like tough approaches to law and order and immigration and towards a more liberal attitude to issues like gay rights and ethnic minorities as well as a concern for the disadvantaged. By September 2006 his party had established a lead of 9 points according to one ICM poll. The older Labour MPs had seen the Conservatives fall 25 points behind Labour in 1992 yet still come through to win the election but more recent recruits to the chamber began to worry their seats might be at risk and that their prime minister was no longer the magician who had won three elections for Labour in succession but a serious liability. Several of the 2001 intake were to sign the Simon-Bryant letter while arguably wiser heads desisted.

3. John Prescott Related Scandals:

a) John Prescott was at the centre of an unlikely scandal in April 2006, when it transpired he had been engaged in a two year affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple. The details of assignations, illicit couplings behind office doors and sundry betrayals of his wife and family, were assiduously relayed to the public who pored over them, mostly with delighted disbelief. It was reminiscent of the last days of John Major when it seemed every Conservative MP was having an affair with his secretary. But politically the publicity was harmful in that it held the government up to ridicule.

b) The second scandal was less entertaining but more serious. While on a trip to the US in July 2005, the deputy Prime Minister, with his civil servants, stayed at the ranch of billionaire casino owner, Philip Anshutz, and received various gifts. Not declaring the stay was bad enough but the fact that Prescott could have conceivably assisted his host in obtaining UK government approval to open a controversial mega-casino on the site of the Millennium Dome, bought by Anshutz some years before, ratcheted up the affair to a resignation issue. Tony Blair refused to sack one of his very few working class Labour ministers because, asserted most commentators, his post of deputy leader of the party was an elected one and would raise the vexed issue of when Blair was going to stand down too. However, the two scandals attracted much odium which naturally attached themselves to the government and damaged its standing.

4. Foreign Prisoners Scandal: Again in April 2006 it became known that some thousand foreign criminals-some of them rapists and murderers- had been allowed to finish their sentences and re-enter society instead of being deported as intended. Home Secretary Charles Clarke, struggled to explain such astonishing inefficiency and eventually resigned, with marked ill grace. Together with related rows about immigration running way ahead of predictions and others related to failings of government agencies like the Child Support Agency (June 2006), Clarke’s departure seemed to reinforce an impression that Labour was not skilled at the business of government. The new Home Secretary John Reid, scarcely helped matters by declaring that the department was ‘not fit for purpose’, an implicit criticism of his previous colleagues in the post.

5. Loans for Peerages Scandal: On top of all these other woes, in July 2006, it became known that Labour’s election funding in May 2005 had been raised substantially through loans from rich businessmen whose names turned up later recommended for honours, including peerages. It seemed this was strictly a Downing St affair and the Treasurer of the party was astonished and angry when he found out about it. According to a 1925 law the selling of peerages is against the law and the police were called in. Asst Chief Commissioner Yates was placed in charge of the investigations and soon prominent people were questioned and in some cases- for example Lord Levy, Blair’s tennis partner and fund raiser-arrested. It seems natural that such activities would involve the person at the head of the party and at the time of writing it is still not known if Tony Blair will be questioned, implicated or even tried for breaking the law. It is still possible Blair will be questioned- or even arrested- but even though most people assume he tacitly approved such behaviour, it is likely tracks have been efficiently covered by his staff.

6. Tony Blair’s Foreign Policy: this issue had been a running sore within the Labour Party ever since Blair’s decision to follow the lead of George Bush, hugely unpopular in the party, in his over the top responses to the 9-11 attacks. Blair pledged to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Bush. He sent forces into Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban but much more controversial was Iraq which Britain jointly invaded with the US on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Blair’s attempts to win a legitimizing resolution from the UN, failed and when to the dubious legality of the war was added the total absence of WMD, Blair’s position and credibility was fatally undermined. His alleged deference to Bush was hilariously reinforced when a private conversation with Bush at a conference in July 2006 was recorded and published. His subordinate status-Bush greeted him with the words ‘Yo Blair’- was palpable and his offer of diplomatic help with problems in the Middle -East was humiliatingly dismissed.

The Lebanon War: This happened slightly later in July. This was set in motion when the guerilla force based in Lebanon, Hezbullah, widely believed to be an instrument if Iranian foreign policy, breached the Israeli border to kill some soldiers and kidnap a further two. When they were not returned Israel began a fearsome aerial bombardment of suspected Hezbullah positions as well as Lebanese infrastructure to impede possible rearmament via Syria. It soon became clear that Israel, which also initiated a land invasion, was seeking to destroy what it saw as a centre of terrorism close to its borders. Most EU nations condemned the response as a brutal over-reaction and called for an instant cease-fire but Blair stuck rigidly to the Bush line, to the fury of his party critics who believed he was complicit in a delay designed to allow Israel time to destroy completely an enemy which was raining rockets on Israeli cities. This issue of Lebanon, with hundreds of innocent civilians killed via the heartless realpolitik of US backed Israeli policy, acted as a lightning rod to elements in the Labour Party and helped crystalize inchoate discontent into action- hence the letter sent on 5th September.

7. Brown and the ‘Coup’.
When Blair’s response was brusquely negative, the PPSs resigned, during the afternoon of 6thSeptember and the Labour Party lurched to the brink of civil war. Brown and Blair had two rancorous meetings in which Brown demanded conditions-including a joint premiership for Blair’s remaining months and an endorsement of Brown by the PM- which Blair rejected. For a while it seemed as if Blair might be gone in matter of days not several months as he had intimated, but in the end the party backed off from ditching its three times election victor in the kind bloodbath of recrimination which had attended Thatcher’s departure in 1990. Some suspected that Brown, who had refused to speak during the fraught period of the attempted coup, eventually weighed in and instructed his many supporters in the party to back off on the grounds that he had no interest in inheriting a party close to self destruction. Blair eventually accepted he would go earlier than he would have wished-maybe February 2007- with a new leader in place by the summer- but some echoes of the febrile atmosphere remained at the Labour conference in Manchester. Speculation continued that Gordon Brown knew of the plot and, while not actively sponsoring it, was tacitly, and treachorously, supportive.

The irony was that Brown’s suspected role and his refusal publicly to disavow the plotters, probably left him as much if not more damaged than Blair by the feuding. Former Home Secretary bruiser, Charles Clarke, weighed in on 8th September with a withering attack on the Chancellor accusing him of being ‘stupid’ to come out of a crucial meeting with Blair grinning in triumph while also accusing him of being ‘un-collegiate’, ‘autistic’ and poor at managing colleagues. While Clarke was no Blairite, he was clearly paying off some old scores with someone who had not been the easiest colleague. Clarke’s outburst was criticized by those who wanted to maximize Labour unity but few denied that the Chancellor suffered from handicaps likely to make his role as premier more problematic than easy. In consequence Alan Johnson, the Education secretary, with a ‘back story’ of overcoming a poverty stricken orphaned childhood, suddenly was thrust into the limelight. He admitted being interested in the Deputy leader post but was soon being fancied for the leader’s job, as: Blairites preferred him to Brown as someone easy to work with; his communication skills were said to be superior to Brown’s; and his Englishness was held to play better with English middle class voters than the dour and somewhat charmless Scot. On 19th September Brown’s hopes for a free run at the top job once Blair stood down were further dashed when Home Secretary John Reid, no friend of his fellow Scot, made signals that he might well stand as well. However, the excellent extended Economist article on the subject-16th September 2006- predicted the ingrained loyalty of the party, combined with a sense of gratitude to someone who had maintained such astonishing economic growth since 1997, would eventually see Brown installed in Downing St.

The Impact of the Manchester Conference 2006
Throughout the week long conference, held in the G-Mex building central Manchester, the issue of the transition rumbled beneath the surface. While it did not break out on the conference floor the watching media made much of it in comment and discussion:

a) Brown’s speech 25th September: Brown’s speech had been much anticipated and needed to be both a taste of what was to come and something which healed divisions. In the event it was not stand out but was not a failure either. He praised Tony Blair as a friend and partner who had made a great contribution but few were persuaded by his efforts to sound sincere. Cherie Blair was damagingly overheard to comment ‘that’s a lie’ when Brown claimed it had ‘been a privilege to work with Tony Blair’. She later denied the remark but it rang all too true to party members and the public at large.

b) Blair’s speech 26th September: Blair’s swansong speech was one of his best and made many in the party consider ruefully that a man who had won three successive elections and was still at the height of his powers, had been forced out prematurely. He seemed to confirm Cherie’s comment by quipping cleverly that ‘at least I don’t have to worry about Cherie running off with the bloke next door.’

c) Newsnight, 26th September: Frank Luntz, a US pollster assembled 30 members of a focus group- the majority Labour supporters- and asked them questions about possible candidates for the leadership. Apart from Brown, only John Reid had any significant public recognition. Once printed CVs were circlulated, Johnson attracted support but when clips of them speaking were shown, this subsided. At the end of the process Johnson and David Miliband, another fancied possible runner were nowhere; Brown himself-still clearly damaged by his assumed role in the ‘coup’- attracted only a few votes while 17 of the 30 plumped for the tough former heavy drinking, heavy smoking tough guy John Reid.

d) Reid’s Speech, 28th September: This was a mixture of tough assertion of tough measures against terrorism and defiance of criticism from civil rights advocates and British Muslims. It was well received and interpreted as a bid to be a possible contender for the leadership should Gordon lose support before the vote next year. Leadership contests usually go to the favourites for Labour but John major came from nowhere to win in 1990 and David Davis was a secure as Brown seems now just over a year ago but lost the vote to Cameron when it came to it.

However, after all these runes and tea-leaves had been interpreted, most watchers of the political game thought Brown still the most likely person to inherit the crown from Tony Blair sometime spring or
summer 2007. But Brown’s position has been severely weakened by his role in the attempted coup which he could have stopped with a word any time during its progress. Much can happen in the six months or so left before the party votes on its next prime minister. What seems clear, however, is that Blair is not prepared to endorse Brown as his successor and this absence might be felt keenly when it really matters. Brown might live to regret being such a difficult and rancorous colleague for Blair ever since 1994 when he agreed not to stand for the leadership; his eventual career might also prove the truth of Cecil Parkinson’s eponymous law.

BJ, 2nd October 2006

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