Friday 24 November 2017

Review: The End of the Party -- the Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley

Penguin Viking, €19.99

Remember Yes Minister, with its nervous politician desperately anxious for office and his wily Whitehall permanent secretary Sir Humphrey? This benign image of UK cabinet politics has now been shattered by tales of bullying and physical intimidation of colleagues and staff by the present occupant of 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair was intimidated by his then chancellor, Brown, who was intellectually dominant to the charismatic prime minister.

Despite frequent requests by his staff, and particularly his wife Cherie, to stand up to the dour Scot, Blair shied away from conflict. He gives the impression of promises to Brown, particularly about handing over power, only to subsequently ignore or even deny them. This makes Brown angry and unco-operative. For example, Brown refused to allow his prime minister to know what was in the budget until he heard it on the floor of the House of Commons.

The revelations in Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party -- the Rise and Fall of New Labour are much worse than mere political rivalry.

As chancellor, Brown frequently charged into Blair's den in Downing Street, slammed the door closed and gave rein to a sea of four-letter expletives.

As prime minister, Brown pushed a female typist out of her chair then took over the keyboard and started typing furiously himself because she was too slow.

The Blairs were the first family in decades to have a baby born in Downing Street. The Browns tragically lost their first child only days after her birth. The sight of baby Leo's buggy in the stairwell of Downing Street was taken by Brown as a deliberate and cruel provocation by his neighbours.

Brown sees conspiracy and treachery all around him. Cabinet colleagues have their department's policies tightly controlled through heavy-handed budgetary measures. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, Brown's original closest advisers, and now cabinet ministers, are portrayed as the Praetorian Guard -- employed as attack dogs against political colleagues. A willing media was used to publish negative stories against anyone who crossed their path and that of their master. This led to the resignation of government ministers such as Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, and Estelle Morris. But we never knew or even suspected the level of distrust and vicious personal intrigue that, as claimed by Rawnsley, was at the very centre of the New Labour project. The brilliance of the public face of New Labour's triumphant three election victories obscures intrigue, vicious back stabbing and unbridled envy.

This frenzied activity took place within a broad, big tent containing a contradictory left/right political party led jointly by Blair and Brown. Between them is Peter Mandelson. Their relationship from 1994 right up to the present remains the centre around which the New Labour project continues to gravitate.

The author is a well-informed senior political commentator. He combines an extraordinary array of material in writing this contemporary account in which he includes quoted conversations, backed up by meticulous references and sources. This is instant history and only time will verify the accuracy of its tale. But what a tale!

When the then Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in March 1994, Blair and Brown did a deal about his succession. Mandelson, then a Labour Party strategist, had convinced Brown -- who was senior to Blair -- that middle Britain would only accept an English Labour prime minister after the Welsh Kinnock and the Scottish Smith. Blair, in return for his support, assured Brown he would have significant powers as chancellor and in time succeed him as prime minister.

This deal is now a legend but neither of them, so far, has released the details. Either way, the deal informs the basis of New Labour's first term, which the author has described in an earlier book, Servants of the People.

This book starts with Blair's second victory and his regret that New Labour, particularly himself, had been too timid in the previous four years. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a directionless US president was one year into serving his second term. George Bush and Blair were unexpectedly brought closely together by the al-Qa'ida attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. For both men, their lives and careers would be totally altered forever.

Blair, the charismatic and most pro-European Labour leader ever, would now uncritically stand shoulder to shoulder with the cunning Republican president.

Afghanistan, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, dominate the first half of this large book. From the beginning of the second term, Brown is eagerly awaiting Blair to hand over power. Because of his perception of the delay the two neighbours in 10 and 11 Downing Street have increasingly vicious rows, confrontations and shouting matches, which affect and poison relations between their teams.

Public history is written elsewhere. This book reveals a bitter, dysfunctional political marriage that affects the ministers, their political aides and the wider party. Blair had hoped to put Britain at the political centre of Europe by bringing sterling into the euro. Brown, as chancellor, deliberately blocks this move, more to spite Blair than because of his own euro scepticism.

The long march to war in Iraq divides the cabinet. Robin Cook's resignation was followed later by Clare Short's departure.

The approach to the third term becomes increasingly bitter as Brown's demand for a clear timetable for the handover of power becomes ever more strident. Scandals, personal and political, weaken Blair. Brown, with the help of deputy prime minister John Prescott and others, eventually wrests the glittering prize in the summer of 2007 after Blair's third victory.

Despite a successful short honeymoon, Brown becomes an enormous public disappointment as prime minister. Notwithstanding 10 years of scheming and plotting to get into the long sought after job, it emerges that he has no plan, no strategy.

Blair's original abandonment of traditional cabinet decision-making structures -- back in 1997 in what was described as "sofa government" in his Downing Street den -- is now compounded by Brown's control freakery.

Divisions exacerbated by political disillusionment and fatigue hold New Labour behind a resurgent Tory party, led by David Cameron. In desperation, Peter Mandelson, the magician, is recalled from Brussels and Blairite enemies, Blair's associates, are brought back on side.

The Lehman Brothers banking crash in September 2008 thrusts the prime minister back into centre stage.

It is the first financial crisis of the new global age and Brown is now in his element as the Chancellor of the World. Labour's pre-election conference in 2009 is host to a kind of reconciliation before the fight for the fourth term in May 2010.

This is a compelling read in which the many successes -- such as devolution in Northern Ireland -- are drowned out by the vulgar, foul-mouthed, bitching and negative briefing against colleagues by comrades.

Britain has, sadly in my view, become a coarse society. The author apologises in advance for the many four-letter words which are an integral part of the central dialogue and which runs through the book and keeps the reader in wrapped attention.

One is left wondering if this really is how power is exercised in one of the major countries in the world.

Do cabinet colleagues and their political aids bitch and bite so viciously? Can the dream of a decent and fair society, which was the hallmark of New Labour, flourish amid such disgust and disdain?

We will get the answer in May.

Ruairi Quinn is Labour Party spokesman for education and science

Buy 'The end of the Party' from Eason

Irish Independent

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