Too many coups spoil the plot

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.


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14 Responses to “Too many coups spoil the plot”

  1. Alan L says:

    Thanks for that Dan. As an unaligned observer outside the Westminster bubble, you paint a very compelling, colourful picture of what must have been an exciting (and indeed enjoyable) time.

    I have always been slightly surprised how so many intelligent people missed the growing warning signs of severe economic problems, which were around from the middle of the last decade.

    I now know that the answer is that Labour, just like the Tories in the early 1990s, was so engrossed in seductively exciting internal battles, it did not keep its eye on the nation’s economy.

  2. Robert says:

    After you removed Blair we had Brown not the brightest spark, then we had Miliband he’d be expected to have enough gumption to be a good solid Labour leader to bring the left and the right of the party together, sadly after his speech yesterday I’m sorry Blair’s new labour is back it’s alive and the leader is not the bloke to lead the party, so start doing your thing again because the party is heading for the longest term out of power, I mean why vote Blue labour when the best colour blue is in power.

  3. Jane says:

    You should hang your head in shame. Because of your actions and those around you, you foisted a PM on the country who was not up to the job and we have now been landed with one of GB’s cronies. Not to worry though because after supporting the party through thick and thin even in the bad old 1983 period – you lost my vote at the last election. I also have a very good memory and am an avid reader of political books so you will not get my vote back whilst the current leader is in place! I abhor disloyalty and Tony Blair should have been permitted to leave at a time of his own choosing.

    Tony Blair’s policies appealed to the country and he had the personality to win over floating voters. The current leader does not and despite his speech yesterday which was written to appeal to those voters who have deserted the party, he does not cut the mustard.

  4. Ste says:

    Dan

    As you know, I’ve never been a Blairite. But Blair was elected in a three-way contest as leader of our party and won handsomely, in every section of the electoral college. He then led us to three election victories in a row – an unprecedented feat for Labour.

    What you and your disaffected chums did over years of self-serving, disloyal skulduggery was to remove our most successful leader ever and replace him with a man who had neither the integrity to resign and fight Blair openly, nor the stomach for a fair contest when the vacancy finally arose (rather like in 1994). Brown was appointed by acclaim (not elected) via the distasteful method of strong-arming the PLP into depriving any rival of nominations. He then led us to the most crushing, humiliating defeat in our post-war history. Worse even than 1983.

    Now, with a following wind we might make some gains in the 2015 election, but we are a very long way off regaining power. So, we probably have ten years in opposition. Is that what you were aiming for when you dislodged Blair? Purity in opposition? Thanks a lot, mate.

    You know, when we were in opposition in the early nineties we gleefully exploited the Tory divisions in the Major Government and were astonished at how they could so willingly tear themselves apart and hand victory to us in 1997. What you and your co-conspirators did was replicate the worst of the Major years and hand Cameron a decade in power. As much as you (eventually) came to loathe Tony Blair, he provided us with a platform for power. And without power we are just bystanders. You may have disagreed with a lot of what Blair was doing, but I’ll bet you disagree with a hell of a lot more of what Cameron’s Coalition is doing.

    So what now? Having helped to dump the most successful Prime Minister in our history, lever in the worst (and I’m counting Ramsay MacDonald among the contenders) and guide us to bewildering wilderness, what – apart from slagging off Ed – is the plan?

    Or wasn’t there one? Was the excitement of plotting all there ever was?

  5. AD says:

    Dan you are a cancer inside our party.

  6. Dan,

    Just a thought but did you or anyone else who plotted against Tony Blair ever consider that part of the reason that the country did not elect Gordon Brown at the last election was because the party ultimately insulted the democratic will of the electorate when they got rid of Tony Blair and his New Labour brand contrary to their democratic decision at the ballot box?

  7. AmberStar says:

    @ Dan

    Well, you won’t exactly be ‘feeling the love’ after the first few comments.

    FWIW, I think this piece is brilliant, entertaining & spot on in its analysis.

    8-)

  8. Henrik says:

    So. The Brown premiership. Heh. How’s that working for you, comrades?

    Still, I applaud this courageous attempt to lance the boil and permit the Labour Party to get its silly civil war out of the way and then get on with the serious business of becoming an Opposition – you know, an alternative government, with alternative ideas and a vision of what good might look like. I figure by 2020 the Party’ll be in good enough shape to have even the faintest prayer of succeeding to power, by which time the Balls (Ballses?), Millibands and Harmans et al will be safely earning megabucks on the international conference circuit.

  9. Mike Neill says:

    I agree with Ste. What is astonishing about the Brownites is how they could not see what everybody else could see: their man was a dud who could never win an election for Labour. Gordon Brown had no plan, no communication skills, no charm, no self-confidence. As a result he had to bully, bribe and backstab his way to the top. Why were they so attached to this patently dysfunctional fellow? And why, Brown having humiliated Labour in 2010, were they so keen for Brown mark II (E. Miliband) to do it all over again? Don’t they want a winner to lead the party? They’re no better than the Bennites twenty years before.

  10. Dan Hodges says:

    Jane,

    I hang my head in shame every day.

    It’s a reflex.

  11. Dan Hodges says:

    Ste,

    “What – apart from slagging off Ed – is the plan?”

    Watch this space.

  12. Dan Hodges says:

    AD,

    Yes, but apart from that, did you like the piece?

  13. AnneJGP says:

    And people like this run the country. People like this are the only ones we’re able to vote for.

    Dan, you make a very convincing case in favour of a hereditary parliament.

  14. tolkein says:

    So, Dan, what did you get for plotting to unseat a three time election winner? The abolition of the 10p tax rate? Matching the Tories on inheritance tax? Anything else? Maybe TB wouldn’t have had so much bad press if you hadn’t been badmouthing him. Where were the reforms to health and education and the constitution under GB? What was the point of it all? If TB had gone in autumn 2008 he could have taken the blame for the crisis and maybe we would have won the following election under a new leader. But what have we got now because of the Brownites’ plotting and treachery? You really did sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

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