by Dan Hodges
As no one in the Labour party appears willing to admit their part in the plot to bring down Tony Blair, I’ll cough. I was up to my neck in it.
I briefed and span. Placed stories. Sowed seeds of confusion and dissent.
Ed Balls says he wasn’t involved. Fair enough. He was the only person outside Downing Street who wasn’t.
Westminster in the months after the 2005 election was like a murder mystery party at the Borgias. Febrile doesn’t come close. No one spoke above a whisper. A discreet alcove couldn’t be had for love nor money. I attended a friend’s marriage and an MP I’d been conspiring with was so terrified of being photographed next to me that he sprinted to the other end of the wedding line.
The Telegraph got excited about some scrawled notes and polling. They’d have had an embolism over the spread sheet that was floating around laying out a provisional “transition timetable” with a series of colour coded “waypoints” that need to be passed in order for Gordon Brown to become prime minister before the 2010 election. Or the breakdown of every Labour MP, identifying their perceived level of support or opposition, graded on a sliding scale. 1 was ultra loyal to Gordon. Tony Blair was a 5.
The catalyst for the final move against Blair was an interview Blair gave to the Times around the end of August, effectively claiming that Blair intended to “go on and on”. I remember because I was in the Rivington Grill in Greenwich (highly recommended), when my mobile went off, and a co-conspirator asked me to start tipping off hacks.
I locked myself in the gents cubicle, and started rattling out the line. “Have you heard…the Times…PLP is in uproar…this is it…mocking the party…Blair has to go…if he doesn’t name the date he will be forced out…I’ll get you names in an hour…yes, this time they’ll go on the record…”. When I unlocked the cubicle someone was at the basin washing his hands. Without turning he said, “Good. I hate that bastard Blair”, and walked out.
The desire of people to move beyond the “psychodrama” (copyright Pat McFadden MP) of the Blair/Brown feud is understandable. It was divisive, debilitating and hugely damaging to the Labour party and the government. It was also, though no one will ever admit this publically, a lot of fun.
Talk to some veterans of that time and, if you can catch them off guard, a wistful, far away look will play across their eyes. “You know what”, one MP said to me the other day, “I’m bored. Opposition isn’t depressing or debilitating. It’s just plain boring. Not like the old days”.
Most politicians are actually relatively passive observers of the political process. Even junior ministers often feel they are not really influencing events. But a good old fashioned plot gives everyone a chance to stick their oar in.
When the curry house coup exploded into life I sat on the floor of my living room with a cup of tea in one hand and the Sky remote in the other. A Brownite MP came on and endorsed the plotters live on air. I picked up my phone and rang a friend; “think you’ve got a bit of trouble with x. He’s just tied Gordon to this thing”. Fifteen minutes later the same MP was back on air, recanting his earlier comment.
Scheming gives people, however politically junior, the feeling that they’re influencing history. And trust me, despite the crocodile tears about disloyalty and shattered unity, most of those involved revelled in it.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than wishful thinking to consign Blairism and Brownism to the dustbin of history. Ed Balls’ protestations of innocence over allegations of personal skullduggery were understandable, and as far as I’m aware, truthful. But to claim that there was no plotting, or nastiness, or that Tony Blair’s departure was smooth was ridiculous. The whole country saw what happened to Blair at the end of his premiership, and it wasn’t pre-watershed viewing.
Nor is true to claim this is all “ancient history”. Labour politics is still conducted beneath the shadow cast by that time. Ed Miliband won the leadership election, in part, on an anti-New Labour prospectus. The crucial last few switchers amongst the PLP who handed him that victory were mobilised the Brownite machine. Ed Balls is still torn between the need to cleanse the Brownite mark of Cain from his forehead, and loyalty to his old mentor. The remaining Blairite shadow cabinet members are similarly torn between protecting what they regard to be a spectacularly successful political legacy, and a realisation that the New Labour brand has become terminally tarnished.
That the shadow needs to be chased away is, however, irrefutable. Plots are great from the inside, but from afar they can become monotonous. And this wasn’t even a real plot. Muttering about the leader is one thing. But despite Diane Abbott’s effort to find New Labour fifth columnists beneath every other shadow cabinet bed, no one is planning a dinner party at Harriet Harman’s just yet.
The central problem is two-fold. There are a number of people in the party who still hold to Tony Blair’s ultimately self-defeating belief that to deviate “one iota” from the path of New Labour righteousness spells disaster. And there are a similar number of Ed Miliband supporters who cannot wait to brand any critique of their man as a vicious Blairite counter-coup.
In truth, neither camp has the strength to return to the to the no-holds-barred internecine warfare of yesteryear. But they do have the capacity to define the terms of the debate.
At present, those terms are not attractive. Ed Miliband is no Blairite grim reaper. He was at the heart of the New Labour project, and saw its strengths as well as its weaknesses. His party conference speech quite skillfully began the process of moving his party beyond it, whilst stopping short of dancing on its grave.
Yet since then his defenders have too readily sought to deflect criticism by questioning the motives of those shadow cabinet members seeking clarity over policy and strategy, and branding them throwbacks. If your constant taunt is “it’s time to move on, Blairite” it’s not surprising if the Blairite’s response is “up yours”.
But Blairism must still ship out. Whatever model of party renewal is constructed over the next four years, it cannot simply be a rebuild, in style or substance, of the previous decade. Tony Blair’s party finally turned upon him, and the country upon his successor, for a reason. And that reason was his stubborn failure to begin the process of evolving, even by that single iota, beyond New Labour orthodoxy.
That evolution can still be accomplished. But not by wishful thinking, nor an inability to face up to the reality of Labour’s past; however unappealing.
There was a plot against Tony Blair. A successful one. Those who prosecuted it, and those who fought vainly against it, will have to come to terms with that fact. They will then have to make peace with each other. And finally, if their party is truly to move on, they will have to make peace with themselves.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.