The Brown inner circle: from spearhead to shambles, by Dan Hodges

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


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13 Responses to “The Brown inner circle: from spearhead to shambles, by Dan Hodges”

  1. Paul T Horgan says:

    The main feature of the Labour leadership election is that the male candidates appear indistinguishable from each other in so many ways.

    So, given the above, a mixture of any two of the candidates would suffice to lead the party.

    But what kind of mixture?

    Using the latest morphing technologies, I have determined that the best candidate would be 80% David Miliband with 20% Ed Balls.

    Want to see how?

    Watch the video of the candidates morphing seamlessly into each other here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IitpA73rphs

  2. It will be fun to watch the final humiliation of the Brownies. The comprehensive defeat of Ed Balls, if he comes fourth or even last they will have been well and truly routed.

  3. Albertc says:

    This is a snide, unhelpful article. A bitter piece of tosh.

    (this comment has been edited).

  4. David says:

    Live by the sword, die by the sword.

    Brown spent his entire political career destroying those of others, by smear, innuendo, bullying etc. via proxies (i.e. the Brownites). They only did it because they saw him as their vehicle to the centre of power. When it was clear he was this no longer, they simply wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

    Such was the ‘moral compass’ of Gordon Brown and his henchmen…

    Blair’s biggest crime, Iraq aside, was to not remove Brown from the heart of the government. Now the electorate has – something Brown always feared, and rightly so. Britain is well rid of him.

  5. Nash says:

    What a shame the article never mentioned “good of the country”.

    As far as I can see, Gordon Brown and his mates were only interested in themselves and the power and privileges that went with power. In their actions they were no different from the cliques running many companies. When those groups see their competition as their rivals within the company (or Party) rather than other companies – you are getting close to the company’s demise.

    The Lib-Con coalition do a good job of demonstrating teamwork and working for the “good of the country” – what a shame the Brown Government did not have similar instincts!

    Someday I hope someone writes an article/book/thesis about what qualities that Gordon Brown had that got him as far as it did – to me and most of the country he seemed dim and unlucky; not someone you’d put in charge of a boy scout troop or a football team – let alone a company or a country.

  6. Jim says:

    The organisational (and character) requirements to run a guerrilla campaign against an established leader are not necessarily the same ones that are required when you depose said leader and have to lead the nation, not just your faction………………..

  7. Jabba says:

    “tragedy of Gordon Brown’s demise”

    Tragedy?? Are you quite sure about that???

    “‘Ruthless’ – probably. ‘Obsessive’ – possibly. ‘Controlling’ – definitely.” Hint: Its not just about the party. The Government is there to serve us, the people, not be a means to its own ends. Theres nothing tragic about the implosion of a regime that is only there to satisfy its own needs whilst hiding under the veneer of being public servants.

    “The Brownites constructed the economic programme and strategy that brought us to power.”

    No they didnt, the electorate got fed up of the sleaze ridden Tories after 18 years. Labour were finally seen as being electable, having turned from Red to Purple.

    “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.”

    Successfully delivered? Are you having a laugh? Brown couldnt successfully deliver door to door anything, thats why he was kept at arms length from the public at every turn!

    Dan, all NL was about was seizing power for its own glorification as a means to its own ends and nothing to do with public service. The epitome of “whats in it for me” politics.

  8. David Cottrell says:

    In hindsight Brown looked flawed from the day he started the big spins double accounting and announcing
    various policy innitiatives several times, we knew he was not telling the truth,we just could bring ourselves to accept it,none of the brownites must ever have a hand in government again

  9. Avikal says:

    It always appears to me that Labour Politicians and their Paymasters the Union Bosses such as Bob Crow really hate the People of this Country. They strive always to get out of the economic grouping economically called “Working Class” whilst keeping strong regional accents and acting tough whenever mentioning that they act in the interests of the workers. So often they do not do so, when judged by their actions. Their personalities are angry, mostly males who are often well read and sometimes very well educated, but remain with deep character flaws in many cases.
    Gordon Brown epitomized an ego centric selfish man who has no love of Country ( the UK ) He sees himself as a great saviour, doing the voters a favour.. Those Labour potential future leaders we now see on our screens are no different, whist the Uniion Barons simply smell blood – Ours.
    I was born into a mining family of several generations. I recognise none of these people..

  10. AndyN says:

    This self-absorbed navel-gazing is only natural from a defeated political party, but to describe Gordon Brown’s ousting as a “tragedy” is ludicrous.

    And if the best it has to look forward to is a “second wave” spearheaded by ham-acting blowhards like Tom Watson, Labour will be spending a very long time in the wilderness.

  11. Penfold says:

    @Jabba says:
    August 13, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Totally agree.
    When the full accounting and analysis is done, the NuLab years will be seen as the most corrupt in UK political history.
    Never has a term ended with so much owed by the people, for so little, at such cost.

  12. SJH says:

    The “Brown inner circle” is aptly named

  13. Excellent article, sorry I had to miss out on it for a whole year before reading it!

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