On Sunday I had my first opportunity to watch ‘Five Days That Changed Britain’, Nick Robinson’s exposé of the deals, double deals and expressions of sincerity from Nick Clegg that culminated in the establishment of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Although the programme wasn’t revelatory, I found it candid, insightful and, to my surprise, moving. There was something genuinely poignant in the picture it drew of Gordon Brown’s growing isolation as the political options narrowed and his enemies closed in.
It reminded me of a little vignette from the morning after the election, when Gordon arrived at Labour HQ to address party workers. After a few brief words of thanks, he prepared to depart for Downing Street, only to be unceremoniously bundled into a side room by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, who proceeded to lay out their strategy for a grand alliance to keep the party, (though not necessarily him), in power.
Peter, Alastair and Andrew Adonis featured at length in the transition drama, and were clearly – to the extent that we had a negotiating strategy – its architects. Which goes beyond poignancy, stampedes right past pathos and dives headlong into Shakespearian tragedy. At his darkest hour, with all hope fading, the King calls out for his trusted aides, only to find himself surrounded by the henchman of his bitterest foe. “That one might read the book of fate/And see the revolution of the times”. Or, in Gordon’s case, the Sun and the Mail.
But the tragedy of Gordon Brown’s demise is also attended by mystery. As the battlements yielded, what of his own praetorian guard? Where were his champions, his own retinue of advisors?
The collapse of the Brownite inner-circle, as a political event distinct from the fall of Brown himself, is one of the strange untold stories of the Labour government. If, as is generally perceived, Gordon was one of the two pillars of New Labour, then those around him were fundamental to New Labour’s success. Like them or loathe them, the Brownites constructed the economic programme and strategy that brought us to power. They successfully drove through that programme when in office, while simultaneously strengthening Brown’s personal grip on the succession. They delivered him the keys to Downing Street without challenge, and with sufficient political capital immediately to secure his own mandate by means of a snap election.
And then they splintered.
Look up “notable Brownites” on Wikipedia, and you get some familiar names. Alistair Darling. Douglas Alexander. Ed Miliband. Nick Brown. Ed Balls. At the beginning they were blood brothers. By the end they were recreating the final scene in Reservoir Dogs: everyone pointing guns at everyone else. Ed B and Alastair briefing against each other over economic strategy. The world and his wife briefing against Douglas Alexander for the election that never was. Ed Miliband briefing and running hard for the leadership against Ed Balls. Nick Brown’s conspicuous failure to endorse either of them.
The causes of this fracture were varied. All political relationships come under strain, and that was especially true given the unique pressures imposed by the ‘dual premiership’. Douglas Alexander, for example, was viewed with suspicion by a number of other Brownites for his perceived flirtation with the Blair inner-circle.
Uncertainty over the timing and nature of the succession also created its own tensions. Gordon’s frequent entreaties to his aides to rid him of the turbulent Blairites were invariably countermanded at the last moment with the ambiguous observation, “the time isn’t right”. Nick Brown was badly scarred by the abortive rebellion over tuition fees, while Ed Balls became increasingly frustrated by the ‘stop/start’ orders issued after Blair backtracked on his pledge to step down in the summer of 2004.
But, despite this friction, at the time of the handover the Brownites were still a cohesive and formidable political force. Until Brown himself chose to dilute their influence. Geoff Hoon was appointed chief whip, over Nick Brown. Stephen Carter was parachuted in and Spencer Livermore unceremoniously dumped. Peter Mandelson secured his umpteenth, and most spectacular, rehabilitation.
This changing of the guard was explained at the time as Gordon drawing a line under the factionalism of the Brown/Blair years. And he was duly praised for his new collegiate approach to government.
Except that the wheels came off. “A shambles”. “Dysfunctional”. “Lightweight”. Just some of the descriptions of Brown’s Downing Street. How many of those phrases would have been used in connection with Gordon and his circle prior to the succession? ‘Ruthless’ – probably. ‘Obsessive’ – possibly. ‘Controlling’ – definitely. But shambolic? Lightweight? No.
Of course, as the Brownite façade crumbled, few tears were shed. Too many negative briefings, too many angry midnight calls. But the impact went beyond the personal. Look at accounts of our election campaign. The chaos of number ten transported lock, stock ‘n barrel to Victoria Street. Look too at the accounts of our final five days. The Tories and Lib. Dems entered negotiations with message scripts, briefings and detailed policy proposals. We bowled up with a wing a prayer and a Harper Collins contract burning a hole in our pockets. ‘Controlling’? If only.
It is right that we seek to move on from the two camps that have dominated the party for over a decade. And we need to look for ways of constructing a more inclusive model of engagement within the party. But we must understand too that political leadership is a lonely, exposed and vulnerable place. Our next leader, whoever they are, will seek to surround themselves with people they respect and trust. We need to have the confidence and maturity to give them the space to do so without hurling accusations about cliques, cabals or sofa cabinets.
Not that the Brownites, individually or collectively, are a spent force. The ‘second wave’ – Tom Watson, Ian Austin, Mike Dugher et al, are working hard on Ed Balls’ campaign, and once the leadership election is out of the way will turn increasingly effective fire on the Tory-Lib Dem government. They will regroup and march again. But it will be under a very different banner.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut