Overnight on the 20th/21st May 1987, a 26-year old Mississippian named Edward Earl Johnson was executed in the gas chamber, convicted of murdering a police officer when caught in the act of sexually assaulting a pensioner. There was no medical evidence against him, and he claimed that his ‘confession’ was extracted by police at gunpoint.
His final days in jail were captured in a BBC documentary called Fourteen Days in May, which you can watch in full here. It was shown in November that year, and at a time when there still annual debates and regular free votes in Parliament on the restoration of the death penalty, it had a profound impact on that debate, showing how easily a man could be executed despite serious doubts about his conviction.
On a human level, it is an intensely painful film to watch: an intelligent young man experiencing his own fate right to the end in a state of bewilderment; and his family, trusting to God and the justice system to see the right thing done, while all the while preparing for Edward’s death. You will never listen to the love song ‘Always’, by Atlantic Starr, the same way again, having heard it sung to a young man by his family, knowing it is the last time they will see him alive.
Recalling the anniversary of the execution last night, I stumbled across the transcripts of two interviews conducted with Don Cabana, Edward’s prison warden, and Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer who fought to have him cleared, both of whom played prominent roles in the BBC film.
I’d recommend reading all the transcripts on this site, but below are extracts from the Cabana and Stafford Smith interviews, which I think should be read by anyone who casually calls for Capital Punishment to be brought back in Britain.
In Evans’ case his mother and father, he came from a really good family and, you know, the hardest thing was to have to tell a mother that it was time to say a final goodbye to her son. And when I told her that Sunday before the execution that it was time she came over and she rested her hand on my arm and she said, ‘I’ve known you now for six years and I know you’re a good person and I know you have children of your own, please don’t…don’t kill my child’.
And, that’s…that’s…that’s difficult.
Wardens also, I think, deep down inside they secretly hope for absolution from the inmate. And that’s important because I think, at least my experience, was that every time I executed somebody it was like a little bit of me was dying along with them. And had any of the inmates that I knew well and had gotten close to and executed, failed to give me absolution it would have left me with a very empty, empty feeling.
In the case of Edward Earl Johnson, because he insisted on his innocence and prison officials are used to hearing that all the time. But where a Death Row prisoner’s concerned, once they know they’re gonna be executed, you know, invariably what happens is, I mean, they’re not gonna jump up and say, ‘Well, Halleluiah I might as well ‘fess up, tell the truth, I did it’.
They will say that in their way, you know, if they say, ‘Warden, would you apologise to the victim’s family for me’, well hell, if you didn’t do it then there’s nothing to apologise for. Or ‘Tell my momma I’m sorry’. You know, um, but in Edward’s case, when I asked him if he had any final words, you know, his statement was, ‘I’m innocent. I haven’t been able to make anybody listen to me or believe me, and Warden, you know, in a few minutes you’re about to become a murderer’.
Well, you know, there’s a certain amount of role play that goes on too and inmates and prison staff alike sometimes think they’re supposed to play these macho roles to the very end, you know.
And, because I knew this kid and his grandmother who raised him, and I knew that he came from a religious family and in the prison he was very observant, he was, he didn’t wear it on his sleeve for everybody to see. And so, I thought, you know, what if what we have here is the bravado thing to the very end.
And so I leaned down and whispered to him, I said:
‘Son, I’m gonna step on out of the chamber here in a few minutes and as soon as that red phone rings, we’re gonna have to proceed’. And I said ‘You know what, there’s twenty something people standing around here witnesses and staff and stuff, it’s not important for any of them to hear you say – ‘I did it’, OK. That doesn’t matter.
‘But what is important is that whatever the truth is, that, before I have to give the order, you have made peace between you and your God about the truth. He needs to hear you say what the truth is. Nobody else here needs to and they’re not entitled to. You don’t owe anybody here anything. But you owe yourself and you owe the God that you profess to believe in that clear understanding’.
And I thought, you know, this is pretty good stuff I’m saying here if he’s just playing a role and he really did the crime and stuff, maybe this’ll bring him around because I think you really think about…. I said to the governor one time, ‘Look, part of what Christianity preaches is redemption’. And I said ‘What if some prisoner that I execute might have achieved redemption next week, next month or next year? Once we’ve executed them that possibility’s gone forever’.
And so that was important to me for this kid and he looked at me very calmly and he said, ‘Warden, I’m at peace with my God, how are you gonna be with yours?’ And, I walked out of that chamber convinced that he was innocent, I really did.
Clive Stafford Smith:
It was May 21st 1987 they killed Edward Johnson. I mean, you look back on it and you know, certainly, if I knew then what I know now I don’t think he would have died. Um…it’s very sad. You know, I’d just sat in the execution chamber and watched them gas the poor guy to death!
And whatever theoretical views one might have about the death penalty become very much humanised when you meet the people involved, when you watch some guy dying in front of you, who you actually rather like – it’s obscene.
So yeah, I was angry and there are other things too, I had just come from talking with the family and I had to tell these poor people who had been trodden on all their lives, that the government had just done it to them again.
And one of the fascinating things about having the BBC there, was it actually injected such a level of unreality – you kept thinking that someone was going to call ‘Cut’ and it was all going to be over. And thankfully, for Edward’s sake, he believed that too.
When I went into the…I actually walked with him into the gas chamber and he said to me, ‘Is there something you know that I don’t know?’ and I didn’t quite understand what he meant to begin with, but I figured it out – that he really thought they weren’t going to do it. And in that sense it was good to have the journalists.
It was horrendous for him, you know. It’s frustrating later to discover this woman who had been with him at the time of the murder, who could have said that he couldn’t have done it. But, you know, when I talk to her about why she didn’t do anything, it actually illustrates the total powerlessness of someone in Edward’s position and many of these other guys’ position.
She said, ‘Who am I gonna call? I can’t call the FBI, it’s not like in the movies where the FBI come swooping in to do the right thing.’ And she said, ‘Look, I went to the police, I told them he hadn’t done it, and they told me to buzz off and mind my own business.’
And that’s the ultimate powerlessness and, of course, it’s true of so many poor people in Mississippi and elsewhere.
Well, it took forever. I mean, one thing is people always act like this is over instantaneously, it’s absolute nonsense! They had him sitting in that chair for fifteen minutes. And if you think how long a minute can be if we just sit here in silence for a minute right now. You imagine if those was the last fifteen minutes of your life, it just when on and on and on.
And it was about half way through that poor old Edward finally worked out that no one was going to call him. And, you know, he said, ‘Well, let’s get it over with’. And then what he goes through, you know, you always have these perverse discussions where the doctors say, ‘Oh, don’t try and hold your breath that just makes it more painful’. Well, that’s just not a human reaction, of course. And so, it took forever!
We’d raised a legal issue in Edward’s case which the courts rejected, and then about ten years later the Supreme Court said we were right. And the Supreme Court said, ‘Well, the best we can say is we were simply wrong in Edward Johnson’s case’. But, you know, that’s not much consolation because the guy’s cold in his grave.
Well, I very rarely discuss why the death penalty’s wrong, because it seems to me that is the wrong question. The real issue is - why is the death penalty right? What does it achieve?
And, you know, when I’ve watched people die, it’s always at night and you come out of the execution chamber, and you look up at the stars and you say, ‘Well, you know, how did that make the world a better place?’ and it didn’t, and it achieved absolutely nothing positive.
So we can argue about all these different things, about, you know, whether it’s a deterrent or not – the guys I represented didn’t know what deterrent means. Is it a way to save money – no it’s more expensive. Are we going to make mistakes – of course we make mistakes.
I mean there are hundreds of intellectual arguments about why it’s wrong, but I just think we don’t need to go that far because no one can justify why it’s right.
This night, 45 years ago, Martin Luther King came off his sickbed to the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, where a large crowd had gathered for a campaign rally in support of striking sanitation workers.
Memphis encapsulated the problem that the Civil Rights Movement faced after 1965, once its focus switched from civil rights and voting rights in Southern states to the problems of Black poverty, police abuse and economic discrimination in the major American cities.
How do you make a strike by sanitation workers for better wages and working conditions the same kind of moral issue as Blacks in the South being denied the vote or forced to use segregated facilities?
How do you put pressure on faceless corporations through marches and boycotts when you do not face the same open police brutality and White violence that shocked the world when the same tactics were used in the South?
And how do you retain the support of White liberals and the White House itself when your protest is wrapped up with rioting and the activities of the Black Power movement, as it was in Memphis?
Martin Luther King tried to address these challenges in his ‘Promised Land’ speech on April 3rd, 1968, which I believe - partly because of the circumstances and the timing, but mainly because of the scintillating argument and soaring rhetoric - is the greatest speech ever made. It’s worth reading in full, but these are for me the highest points:
Which age would you like to live in?
A magnificent opening theme, where MLK imagines the Almighty inviting him to choose an age to live in, allowing him to conduct a rapid survey of history from Moses through to Memphis, and proclaim that now is a more important time than ever:
“I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.”
Tell them not to buy Hart’s Bread:
How many great speeches in history contain detailed instructions for direct action campaigning, including which banks, bread makers and milk companies to boycott. Yet here, MLK makes a practical reality of his rhetoric on forcing change, and persuades his audience of their collective power.
The road to Jericho:
MLK’s re-telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan is brilliant in his personalisation of the story, and his almost comic empathy with the priest and the Levite who passed by the stricken man, arguing that they asked themselves: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”.
While it should not matter:
The reading of letters is a familar rhetorical tool, used to great effect most recently by President Obama, but never used to greater effect here, than when MLK says he’d forgotten all the letters he received from the great and good when he was stabbed in New York ten years previously, except one from a little girl, which he would never forget:
It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
I’m glad I didn’t sneeeeeeze:
Surely the strangest peroration in the history of great speeches, but it works astonishingly well, not least because of the aural reminders of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, and his inspiring tour of the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. The crowd starts to build into a frenzy as he says:
“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”
With the crowd clapping and cheering, MLK then drops his voice and his pace to tell of the threats on his life, and how it doesn’t matter to him now. It’s a sombre moment, instantly lifted as he explains in soaring tones why it doesn’t matter:
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
In 1993, when history undergraduates at Cambridge were listening to pitches by the various faculty members for what they should choose as specialist subjects for their finals, Professor Tony Badger - who taught the Civil Rights Movement course - played an audio recording of the last few minutes of the ‘Promised Land’ speech, switched the casette player off, and then simply said:
“And the next day they shot him…..If you want to sign up for the course, there’s a sheet at the front.”
I think every one of us in the room did.
The day they shot him - April 4th 1968 - there were riots in most major American cities and university campuses with large Black populations. Except Indianapolis. That was in no small part to what I would regard as the greatest improvised speech of all time, Robert F Kennedy’s announcement of MLK’s death to a campaign rally in the city.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
And two months later they shot him too.
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam
There’s another anniversary today, which closely relates to the same time period. 25 years ago today, the documentary film Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam was first telecast by HBO in the United States, having premiered in film festivals the previous year.
It is to my mind the greatest documentary of all time, and with a beautifully simple concept: over documentary footage of the war and excerpts from news broadcasts, a montage of letters from soldiers who served in Vietnam is read out by some of the leading actors and actresses of the 1980s, all against the greatest soundtrack you’ll ever hear, from the Beach Boys at the start of the war to Bruce Springsteen at the unveiling of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.
Some will say the weakness of the film is that it doesn’t convey anything of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, but that’s not what the film is about: it’s simply about the authentic experience of the war from the US soldiers who served there. Their letters are alternately revealing and heartbreaking, and you can get a sample of the film in these clips: here, here, and here. and you can watch the whole film on YouTube here. I can’t find it on a Region 2 DVD, but it’s the main reason I keep my old VHS player in working operation.
A quick comment on the Standard controversy, just because a few people have asked me what the practice was under Gordon Brown.
Obviously, The Standard are in a hideous position on Budget day, especially lunchtime Budgets, with an edition usually going off stone while the Chancellor’s on his feet, but hitting the streets after he’s sat down, in which they’re required to have maybe 3-4 pages of coverage and a splash.
So the way it usually works is this: you have a strictly confidential discussion with the Evening Standard political editor on the morning of the Budget or the night before which just ensures they know broadly what they’ll be writing about later and can plan their pages accordingly.
The tone of that initial conversation is things like: ‘Big push on housing’; ‘Small boost for pensioners’; ‘New efficiency measures on public spending’; ‘Tough message on public sector pay’; ‘Massive tax avoidance crackdown – that’s the biggest new money coming in’; ‘Little bit of a surprise on beer duty’; and ‘Big measure at the end on job creation – that’s the biggest money going out’.
Incidentally, you have exactly the same discussion with the broadcasters on the morning of the Budget given they have to react in real-time and prepare packages for the news bulletins afterwards.
That conversation is also a chance for the Standard to ask how reliable the stories are that have appeared in other newspapers in the previous week, to which your responses might vary from: “I think that’s pretty safe” or “I’d steer clear of that one” to “They’re in the right territory but the figures are wrong”.
Again, that helps them plan their pages, and – where you’ve indicated a story is safe – they can write it pretty hard to save themselves a job later.
There is then a second crucial conversation with the Standard, which I always had only after Gordon had stood up to speak in the House – and usually in a frantic 2 minute whisper outside the Parliamentary press gallery – where I’d go through all the themes I’d referred to earlier and fill in the gaps with detailed facts and numbers.
The political editor would then run off and make the necessary additions to his stories, fire them off to the Standard news desk and the presses would begin to roll. While doing so, he’d also keep one ear on the Budget as it was being announced in case I’d left anything of interest out, but frankly I never did.
So, in short, the Standard would have no detailed facts or figures on individual measures or taxes until Gordon had stood up, and there was no risk of any of those figures hitting the streets before Gordon had sat down. It was a tried and tested process, which almost never went wrong, although I’ll admit it might have been a bit more difficult in the days of Twitter.*
Now, importantly, I can never remember in any of those conversations I had over the years giving any indications or hints on growth or borrowing or any of the key market-sensitive fiscal figures. That’s partly because in the days I was doing the job, that was rarely where the attention was focused, which is clearly a bit different today.
But it’s also the fact that – whether it was the Budget numbers twice a year or ONS data every month – I knew it was career death for me (and possibly Gordon) to take any risk of market-sensitive numbers leaking in advance.**
So, what did I make of today’s events? Well, clearly, it was an unfortunate cock-up at the Standard’s end, and I’m sure they’re mortified about landing the very helpful Treasury officials and advisers in trouble.
But I wouldn’t say those officials and advisers are entirely innocent. It seems to me: (i) they must have had the second, detailed conversation too early, or possibly given out too much detail in the initial conversation; and (ii) they also divulged stuff in advance which frankly they never should because of its market-sensitivity.
As for the Standard themselves, if the Treasury choose to divulge that level of information and do so too early in the day, what are they meant to say? “Hold on, I think you’re telling me too much too soon”. Of course not.
And it’s the telling of too much too soon that’s caused the problem – not the long-standing arrangements that I’ve described, or even the Standard’s cock-up in posting their splash online – so I hope no-one in the Treasury will think about abandoning those arrangements as a consequence, and I hope no-one at the Standard is in any trouble tonight.
* We did have one cock-up, which I still remember with a shudder, especially after today’s events. I think it was an afternoon rather than a lunchtime Budget, so the Standard had already done one edition based on a very broad initial conversation saying things like: “The Chancellor is set to give a boost to pensioners” and “Gordon Brown is expected to ease the burden on motorists”. In their rush to get the next edition printed after Gordon had stood up, the Standard inserted the details into those sentences, but didn’t change the tense of them – so it read as though they were still speculating but with the exact detail of what he was going to announce. The paper didn’t hit the streets until after Gordon had set down, but questions were still asked in the House about it.
** There was one occasion when Gordon was adamant for at least 2 hours on the night of a Budget that he was going to have to resign – after he personally had inadvertently leaked every single market-sensitive number in the forecast. But, with apologies for being a tease, I’ll save that cracking story for another day……
Two immediate thoughts on Ben Brogan’s superbly insightful and well-informed piece about Wednesday’s Budget and the Lynton Crosby impact on Tory messaging.
1. First, the latter. It sounds eminently sensible on paper for the Government to talk solely about the issues that are the public’s priorities for the two years until the election. But how do you decide what their priorities are?
According to Ben, the answer from the PM’s pollster Andrew Cooper is by asking people: ‘What issue would you raise with the PM in the pub if he came in for a pint?’, to which the overwhelming answer seems to be ‘immigration’.
The trouble with all that is that, frankly, there’s a certain kind of person who bangs on about politics in the pub, and you don’t necessarily want to base your political strategy around them.
I’d say in general that what wins elections is targeting the kind of voters whose first question if the current PM walked into their pub would be: ‘Alright fella, what’s the Queen like?’, or ‘Do you think Villa are going to stay up?’, or even just ‘How are you, mate?’, rather than ‘What are you going to do about those Romanians?’
It does all slightly remind me of Tony Blair’s obsession - encouraged by Philip Gould - with talking about anti-social behaviour, then law’n’order more widely, and eventually the catch-all theme of ‘security’ in the run-up to the 2005 election, because these were the issues that people would ‘raise in the pub’.
What Tony found is that the more he banged on about anti-social behaviour, the more the media and the public identified it as a big issue, and the harder it became to demonstrate that the Government was capable of doing anything about it commensurate to the scale of the ‘problem’ he himself had talked up. So it played into then Tory leader Michael Howard’s hands.
Of course this made Gordon Brown tear his hair out. He argued - correctly - that Labour would win the 2005 election, as it had done in 1997 and 2001, by focusing on the economy, jobs and public services, and the more the Government itself talked up another issue as the main public priority, the harder it would be to get back to that core agenda.
So - in light of that - tempting though it might be for the Tories just to talk about those ‘pub issues’ of immigration and welfare for the next 2 years - I reckon they’d be handing a bit of an open goal to Labour if that’s at the expense of talking about the economy, the NHS, police and schools.
2. On the first point, if Ben’s correct that George Osborne is going for a ‘steady as she goes’ Budget, similar to that called for by Ed Staite, then there’s a certain logic to that, i.e. if there’s no money for any fireworks, and he doesn’t want any scope for pasty-style disasters, then he should keep it simple.
Gordon Brown often did Budgets and PBRs like that, with very few ‘big-ticket’ measures, usually in the fallow years in the middle of the Parliament.
But in those years, Gordon did something else that George could learn from: when the gruel was thin, he always poured in a few small dollops of honey so there were some positive stories on the day, and some ways of demonstrating that he was conscious of the pressures on working people, not least for the backbenchers who had to hit the doorsteps that weekend.
Look through Gordon’s Budgets and you will see a pattern of small but populist measures sprinkled through every one aimed at core lower and middle income households, from freezes in beer duty to reduced rates of VAT on everything from children’s car seats to tampons. Never enough to affect the bottom line; never a headline measure; but enough to affect public perceptions.
I remember telling Gordon that, before I’d started working as his Head of Communications - on one of my spells back in Customs - I’d watched the 2003 Budget in a backstreet boozer in Southwark. As I watched the TV, I had one eye on a bloke who stood at the fruit machine underneath.
He looked up at the TV screen just three times in the entire Budget: once when Gordon said fags were going up 8p a packet (“F*ck’s sake”, he said); once when he said spirits duty would be frozen (“Wayyy!”); and once when he said he was abolishing bingo duty (“Waheeeey!!!” he said, turning to the barman, “My mum’s going to go nuts”).
He then called his Mum and told her about it, including the immortal phrase - “You won’t be calling Gordon Brown a **** again, will ya?”
I tell that story for a simple reason. That bingo measure cost £20mn - about the same as would have been raised from the pasty tax.
George Osborne would be forgiven this year for not wanting to see a single submission from the tax officials who delivered him VAT on pasties and the granny tax last time round.
But instead he should have told them: “Right you lot, we scr*wed up last time cos I asked you to raise £2bn in a painless way, and I didn’t check the proposals out thoroughly enough. This time, I want the opposite of pasties: the small stuff I can do that will set the tone of the Budget without costing us too much.”
I can tell you, tax officials love that kind of Budget even more than the revenue-raising kind. I always did. And if George thinks Gordon has already picked off all the low-hanging fruit, I’d only recommend he should go back to the tree and see if it’s growing again, for example:
In short, if George Osborne tells his backbenchers that there’s no scope for tax cuts, well - fair enough - but let’s hope he’s looked at all the options, not just the big ones called for by the Opposition and his own backbenchers.
I agree with Ben Brogan and Ed Staite that the Chancellor should keep things simple, and I think he should aim to deliver the shortest Budget in history (44 mins would do it), but he shouldn’t do that at the expense of a few small, symbolic measures to show he “gets it”.
George, Andrew Cooper and Lynton Crosby need to ask themselves: what will that bloke under the telly in the pub in Southwark be ringing his mum about after this budget? It may not be granny taxes or pasties this time, but if he just keeps playing the fruit machine and never looks up at the screen, that’s probably your worst outcome of all.
Yet again, the Sunday papers are full of speculation about the threats to David Cameron’s leadership, revolving this time around yesterday’s (what we might charitably call) ‘wide-ranging’ speech by the Home Secretary about what it will take to win the next election.
This stuff will rumble on interminably unless Plan A eventually comes up trumps - no other issue will matter in the meantime - or until some Massive External Event comes along that gives David Cameron the chance to show that he is still the only person for the job.
My advice to No10 is that neither of those scenarios is worth worrying about – i.e. don’t for goodness’ sake start drafting speeches in response to hypothetical Massive External Events (not on email anyway), and if they’re determined to stick to Plan A, there’s nothing to do but see what happens.
What I think they should be spending their time planning for is what happens if all the speculation, rumbling and agitation comes to a sudden head; if someone somewhere decides to force the issue.
For me, all the talk of stalking horses and leadership contests is an anachronistic nonsense. Not since Margaret Thatcher 23 years ago has a party leader had to resign following a formal leadership challenge.
Since then, four have been compelled to resign (or pre-resign in Tony Blair’s case) as a result of pressure from within their own party, and five as a result of general election defeat. Only Paddy Ashdown and, in tragic circumstances, John Smith escaped either fate.
Britain’s modern party leaders are not ousted by stalking horses; they are dragged from their beds in the dead of night, and shot in the courtyard with a Sky News helicopter overhead. So it would be extremely foolish for anyone in No10 to take the complex rules required to mount a leadership challenge as a reason to relax.
No, when it comes, if it ever comes, I’d guess the attempted ousting of the PM will look like this, all familiar features of past coups:
These moves will not be the starting gun for a leadership challenge; they will be the sniper rifles attempting to finish the job there and then, by generating enough party pressure and media frenzy that the PM’s resignation becomes inevitable.
So what No10 should be asking themselves is: how well prepared are we if and when that day comes? And if they want to know what it takes to get through an attemped coup, they could do worse than study the record of Gordon Brown – the Charles De Gaulle of Downing Street when it came to surviving assassination attempts. Based on the Brown survival manual, I would ask them the following five key questions:
1. How far in advance do you know what’s coming?
Gordon Brown had hands-down the best intelligence operation of any recent PM. We were having conference calls and going through the ‘secret’ lists and plans of rebels signed up to the September 2008 Blairite plot a full fortnight before they moved into action. By contrast, Brown’s operation knew the Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt coup in January 2010 was a shambolic effort with no support precisely because they didn’t know about it in advance. And I say that with no pleasure given I’m a big fan of Geoff’s, and one of Patricia’s former officials.
But that level of intelligence-gathering doesn’t happen by accident: it’s about cultivating moles; taking talkative, sociable types out for drinks; testing the water with individuals by privately venting (and exaggerating) your own concerns about the future; and above all, keeping your eyes and ears open for unusual couplings or hushed conversations. But that all required hard work and ceaseless vigilance, so what I’d ask No10 is: who is currently putting in that effort for you?
2. Who are your wartime consiligieres?
Of course, good intelligence is only of value if you know what to do with it. Once you know what’s happening, when, and who’s involved, your No1 goal in defeating a coup is to make the whole thing look shambolic and doomed to fail, thereby shaping the media coverage and putting others off from joining.
Sometimes, the plotters do that job for you. Other times, where you know their plans in advance, your task is sabotage. So if X is waiting until Y resigns, and A, B and C are due to follow X, all your effort goes into delaying or preventing the resignation of Y, at which point – when the expected announcement doesn’t pop up on News 24 – the others get cold feet, and Z – who was the first to resign – is left high and dry, as happened to James Purnell in 2009.
With David Miliband’s various abortive coups, there was a certain crude art to inducing their failure. I was often personally criticised for over-reacting to some new Miliband manoeuvre, ‘ramping it up’ as people would say. But given David’s tendency to treat rebellion like a reluctant bather inching his way into the sea at Skegness, it made sense to push him right in at the outset, on the grounds that he’d run straight back to his towel, and not try again for at least six months.
But all this requires both a gift for battle-planning, an eye for the enemy’s weak-spot, and the agility to exploit the chaos you create. And what you need most of all when fending off a coup is the ability to flood the battlefield – in this case the Commons tea-rooms and Millbank TV studios – with loyal soldiers prepared to work flat out and take some bullets to ensure that the main noise in the ears of wavering MPs is unstinting support for the leader and criticism of the plotters.
3. Do you know where each member of the Cabinet is, in all senses?
The moment of maximum danger in an attempted coup is when Kay Burley says: “We are yet to hear from the Home Secretary”, or Nick Robinson says: “The most intriguing thing I’ve heard, not confirmed yet, is that the Education Secretary – one of the PM’s closest allies – did not try and persuade his PPS to stay on.”
Once the test of a coup’s momentum becomes the response of key Cabinet ministers, every hour of silence that ticks by piles pressure on the PM. So you need to know in advance where each individual is, and have a guaranteed way of getting a message through. If the response is they’re in a meeting, then forget it – they’re Fredo Corleone. If they answer, you tell them to get a statement on PA asap, and refusal is not an option, as was the case with Alistair Darling during the Hoon/Hewitt coup. You must put the questions in the mind of a wavering Minister: How can I say no? And what if I get this wrong?
But right now, No10 need also to ask themselves about each Cabinet member: where is their head at? If they seem suddenly to be lunching more journalists, doing more speeches, appearing at more receptions, chatting more in the margins of Cabinet and doing less nodding when the PM talks, then they’re probably already thinking about the next reshuffle after this PM has gone, or – in some cases – of taking his place. So, the question for No10 is: are you monitoring all of that, especially with those the PM considers his closest allies?
4. How’s your relationship with the media these days?
As I’ve said, momentum is everything in an attempted coup: to succeed, the plotters must keep pushing the leader towards the cliff. The media are crucial in determining that momentum: if they say it’s fizzled out, then it has; if they say one more bad day will make the leader’s position untenable, then it will.
But, even for the BBC, this is not an objective, scientific process; it’s about 100 or so very influential people at different media outlets forming a view based on their conversations with each other and with key players on either side of the plot, as well as, to some extent, on public attitudes. That is why, no matter how bad the coverage of Gordon Brown’s Premiership became, it was still vital for us to maintain strong and friendly relationships with those 100 or so people.
So, when and if the day comes, the question is: do the PM, his genuine supporters, and his Communications advisers have strong enough relationships with the media that their reading of the situation will trump that of the rebels, or at least be given equal weight? If Craig Oliver and Liam Fox gave entirely opposite views to a senior political editor about whether an ongoing coup was likely to succeed, who would they currently be more inclined to trust?
5. What are you prepared to concede to survive?
Perhaps the hardest question of all is if, despite all your efforts, you are still pushed towards the crisis point – where the media have decided one more bad day, resignation or letter will kill you – how do you save yourself? The only answer is to negotiate, perhaps not with the plotters directly, but with influential Cabinet ministers or party figures, asking them what it will take to reach a deal.
So it’s vital for the PM to ask himself how far he’d go to make the peace. Would he agree to replace individual advisers, change his style of government, or cancel planned reshuffle moves, all compromises that Gordon Brown made to defuse different coups? Would he agree to move his Chancellor or bring forward an in-out referendum, having previously vowed to do neither? These are not decisions that should be made under the intense pressure of an attempted coup, but thought through rationally in advance, so that the twin temptations to concede too much, or to resign impetuously on principle, are both avoided.
My final reflection on Gordon Brown’s record of overcoming coups, is that – however arduous or brutal some of the methods were – his instinct for survival was there for a reason, in that (by the time the Global Financial Crisis started) he knew why he wanted to be in No10 and what he wanted to achieve – even if he often struggled to explain it.
If that instinct for survival – and everything that goes with it – is lacking in No10 at present, then it may point to a wider problem; with apologies to John Rentoul’s Banned List, something of an existential crisis. Which makes the timing of Theresa May’s speech all the more damaging, given that she showed with some level of detail and verve why she’d like to be in No10 and what she’d want to achieve.
And yet, there is so much for the current incumbents in Downing Street to live for, so many reasons to do what it takes to survive. After all, you never know when the next Massive External Event will come along. And perhaps Plan A will eventually come up trumps. Stranger things have happened.
* = Apologies to those with a purist approach to government for the odd Godfather reference in this piece, but if you can’t compare politics to the mafia when it comes to an attempt to whack the boss, when can you?
Dominic Lawson’s excellent article in today’s Independent asks why the state ‘subsidy’ which allows our major national museums and galleries to be open free of charge to the public is considered more important than the right to free swimming for children and pensioners scrapped by the Coalition.
His article also repeats the complaint by the increasingly-luminous Labour MP, Tristram Hunt, that the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in his constituency and other regional collections face unfair competition from their no more impressive national counterparts because of the free admission subsidy enjoyed by the latter.
These are good points and an important debate, but it’s worth looking back at the context of the Labour government’s original decision to underwrite free admission to the national collections in 2001, when I was the Treasury civil servant responsible for - amongst other things - VAT policy.
At that time, those museums and galleries who had traditionally been free of charge - and their patrons - were putting huge pressure on the Government about their VAT bills. Because they did not charge for admission, they were not conducting a business for VAT purposes, and could not therefore reclaim the VAT incurred in running their buildings: heating, upkeep, etc.
They proposed various wheezes to get around their VAT bills, all totally illegal under UK or European VAT law, but ultimately they kept coming back to the obvious solution: charging for entry, and running themselves as businesses. And let’s not kid ourselves, there were many finance directors of those museums and galleries who were quite happy to see that as the solution and take a fiver a head from the adult tourists pouring through their doors each year.
Tony Blair and then Culture Secretary Chris Smith were determined not to have that happen, and after a particularly difficult meeting at No10 with the great arts patron Sir Dennis Mahon (still fighting the same battles from beyond the grave according to Dominic Lawson’s article), the terse instruction came through by email from D.Miliband (then a No.10 Spad) to E.Miliband (then a No.11 Spad): “Get this sorted.”
It wasn’t often Brown’s Treasury was given orders on tax policy by Blair’s Downing Street, but this was one such occasion. So after discussing it with Paymaster General Dawn Primarolo, Ed Miliband called me in, and - despite me telling him and Dawn the 16 different reasons we couldn’t legally do what Dennis Mahon & co. were proposing - Ed kept smiling out of one corner of his mouth, and said: “You’ve got to find a way…We need you to find a way.”
The trouble was that trying to force a solution in this area was hugely risky at a time when Brussels VAT Commissioner Herr Fritz Bolkenstein was itching for an excuse to open a wide-ranging inquiry into all the ways in which the UK VAT system ‘illegally’ diverged from EC VAT rules, particularly where new ’reliefs’ had been introduced which were not protected by the UK’s original accession treaties from back when we introduced VAT in 1973.
The perennial fear was that an inquiry into one new VAT relief could easily spill into the European Court of Justice examining all the other ones we’d introduced or extended over the years since 1973, and for example ruling illegal our (extended) VAT zero rates for children’s clothes and shoes. So when I sat down with two brilliant Customs and Excise civil servants, David Ogilvie and Judith Warner, it wasn’t far off trying to defuse a bomb inside an ammunition dump.
However, without going into all the dull intricacies of the special provisions of Sections 33 and 34 of the VAT Act 1994* which allow for VAT rebate schemes for certain ring-fenced groups of bodies providing certain qualifying non-business services as a result of the funding they receive from central government (believe me, you don’t want me to), we were able to find a convoluted way of refunding a prescribed group of museums and galleries their VAT bills.
That’s why when the “Section 33A Refund Scheme for National Museums and Galleries” was announced in 2001, it was tightly-ringfenced to those bodies who were in receipt of DCMS funding due to the status of their collections, hence why it could not be extended to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, but equally why it could not be legally-challenged by Herr Bolkenstein or by the French or Italian tourist industries.
So I hope that answers Tristram Hunt’s question (albeit not in a way that will satisfy him). It does not answer Dominic Lawson’s point about why free tours round the Tate are considered worthier of subsidy than free swimming for pensioners, but I hope it explains the background to the current arrangements.
And ahead of my appearance at the Public Administration Select Committee tomorrow morning, who have called me to come and answer questions about “The Future of the Civil Service”, it’s a useful illustration that - 9 times out of 10 - when civil servants are told: ”We want this done”, they will do their best to find a way.
* Over the last two years, I’ve read about No10’s plans to devolve responsibility to local authorities to discharge certain services, and open up competition with private providers at local level, and we’ve recently heard that George Osborne is examining similar proposals from Michael Heseltine for the Budget. Whenever I’ve read those reports, I’ve thought: “Hmm, I hope someone’s thought about the implications of that for Section 33”, which is the provision that allows Local Authorities to claim VAT refunds on their spending under certain, very prescribed circumstances. If they haven’t and they’re about to mess around with those arrangements, I’d suggest an urgent word with David Ogilvie and Judith Warner, wherever they are these days!
“Tell me why”, Neil Young sang, “is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?”
Why do we find it so hard to give things up, even for a temporary period, and not just things to which we are chemically addicted, but even bad habits or over-indulgences?
This week, now that the amateurs behind ‘Dry January’ have concluded their warm-up act, the professionals will take the stage: millions of Catholics in Britain and Ireland attempting to give up one of their main pleasures for the 46-day duration of Lent.
Whether they will succeed or not depends in part on what psychological strategy they adopt when deciding what to give up. Some, especially couples, will use the buddy system – giving up something together, and policing each others’ adherence. Others will introduce an element of competition, betting a friend to see whose resolve can last longest.
For me, the best strategy is to ask someone who knows you well what they are certain you could not give up for 46 days. Once they’ve got the abuse out of the way (‘being a tosser’, etc.), you usually get some on-the-money suggestions, from booze to swearing.
The desire to show a good friend that they don’t know you as well as they think is a powerful motivator. And having surprised many of them last year by succeeding in giving up alcohol for the duration, I requested an even more stretching challenge this time round.
One friend suggested Arsenal, but I’m not sure that would be a sufficient hardship this season. Then another friend, watching me tuck into a chicken curry the other night, stated with total confidence that I could not give up meat for 46 days.
Now there’s a challenge.
I’m the guy who goes to J Sheekey or Livebait and orders the steak. When forced to attend a management away-day at the Jamyang Buddhist retreat centre in Kennington yesterday, I smuggled in a packet of ham to have with the ‘lunch’ provided. When Hitler’s food-taster confirmed last week that he was a strict vegetarian, I nodded as though a great riddle had been solved. I like meat a lot.
So not only did I tell my friend I accepted the challenge and would give up eating the beasts of the field for 46 days, but – like Houdini adding a few extra padlocks – I added the other staples of my diet, betting I could go without wheat and potatoes for the duration as well.
Pasta, pastry, bread, chips, crisps, mash, and my beloved lager – all forsaken – along with chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and whatever they’re putting in the frozen lasagne this week.
Tonight will be my carnival (from the Latin ‘carne vale’ – farewell to meat), spaghettival and lagerval all in one – a last feast before the fast.
Usually at this stage, I’d be expected to point you towards my Just Giving page and ask for sponsorship, but – unlike Bob Geldof – I don’t want your fockin’ money.
If you care to support my efforts, I’d ask you to do something much more important: go and sign up to the ‘Enough Food for Everyone….IF’ campaign via CAFOD here, or for all the heathens out there, via the IF website direct.
Because I haven’t just chosen meat, wheat and ‘tatoes because they’re the staples of my diet, but because they’re symbolic of the problems being highlighted by the IF campaign:
Meat because, in many countries in the developing world, land that would be used by small farmers to grow food for their communities is being seized from them to make way for the big agricultural corporations, who will use the land for export crops, for the manufacture of biofuels or for grazing livestock, all for the benefit of motorists and meat-eaters in more prosperous countries;
Wheat because, along with other seeds and grains, trade in them is increasingly controlled by a small number of massive multinationals, able to manipulate markets, if necessary by withholding stocks, and ensure that only those large-scale farmers in their supply chains are supplied with the seeds and grains that they need; and
Potatoes because, almost 170 years on from the famine that devastated Ireland, we are still seeing countries today which are exporting food even as their own people go hungry; countries like Zambia, with the third worst rate of hunger in the world, lauded by the World Bank for its openness to multinationals growing food for export, while avoiding tax on their profits.
Shady land-deals and tax-evasion by multi-nationals; the squeezing-out of small farmers from fair access to land, credit, seeds and markets; and the misuse of land that should be growing food for local communities – these are some of the key root causes of hunger in the developing world that the IF campaign seeks to tackle, and is asking George Osborne and David Cameron to take action on in the March Budget and the June G8 summit.
My Lent fasting won’t make any difference to those problems, but the hole I’ll feel in my stomach each lunchtime at work will remind me why I’m there. If you’d like to play your part, please sign up at the links above.
Having argued yesterday that the demise of the grid system explains a lot of the problems the Government has been having, as well as the oddly stoical response of Steve Hilton, I’m going to consider today the possible rationale for that demise.
Let’s remember that, in the early days of this Government, it leaked like an old church roof. Michael Gove was almost destroyed by leaks in his first months at Education, and just 10 days after the Coalition was formed, we saw the unprecedented leaking of the entire Queen’s Speech to the intrepid Sunday pairing of Paddy Hennessy and Vincent Moss.
The leaking of that period was mostly blamed on disgruntled, Labour-friendly civil servants, although – in my experience and the experience of most people with leaky roofs – the more drips there are, the heavier the flow gets and the more diverse the sources.
If you’re a brand new Minister or special adviser, keen to build relationships with the media, nothing is more tempting than leaking the odd titbit that you’ve seen in a Cabinet paper, especially if you’re in Coalition and owe no party loyalty to the Minister concerned, and if you know those ubiquitous ‘Whitehall moles’ are going to get the blame.
Now, in that context - if you’re Steve Hilton or Andy Coulson in May 2010 - do you view the existence of an ‘Upcoming Business’ document detailing every Government announcement for the next fortnight as a helpful tool for good government, or as a massive hole in your defence against leaks?
Do you regard the grid traditionally circulated across Government (minus the accompanying detailed document) as a helpful device to ensure Departments and Ministers know the plan for each day, or as an invitation for untrustworthy colleagues to sit down over a pint with journalists and try and work out what ‘Forest Management Consultation’ might mean (Erm, a posthumous knighthood for Brian Clough?)
And the reality is, for all its success as an organisational tool under New Labour, the grid and the ‘Upcoming Business’ document were the source of many a leak. A whole journalistic phrasebook exists because of it: “busting the grid” or “a bit of gridology”, all code for using the headlines in the grid to decipher an upcoming announcement.
So an enterprising journalist might be told by a friendly adviser that there’s an interesting line in the grid saying: “Trains: Alcohol”. He or she does a bit of Googling to see what the IPPR, the BMA, the Police Federation or others have been recommending. They then call the Home Office late on a Friday and say:
“Hi, I’ve had a briefing about this trains and booze story for next week, which is all fine – we’re probably going to splash it – and I’ve got all the quotes I need, but I’m a bit unclear which of your Ministers is making the statement – is it the boss or one of the juniors? Ah, OK. And the only other thing I’m unclear about is will there be options in the document, or is it just the main proposal? Ah, OK. And what’s the official way you’d like that worded so we don’t set any hares running? Ah, fine. Let me get that down. Thanks very much.”
Now of course it isn’t always as easy as all that. But over the New Labour years, many a story was fleshed out and stood up from a couple of words in the grid, let alone the several paragraphs of detail found in the ‘Upcoming Business’ document.
So, going back to Hilton and Coulson, you can absolutely see why one of the first things they did on entering Downing Street – upon facing a string of damaging leaks – was to reduce the number of people allowed to attend the grid meetings, reduce the copy list for the ‘Upcoming Business’ document, and both restrict and delay the circulation of the grid across Whitehall.
Nevertheless, in an unsuccessful effort to solve one problem (the leaks continued anyway, witness Budget 2012), they created another, far bigger problem, losing the control that the grid offered them over the government machine, perhaps before they’d realised its importance in that respect.
I can imagine why Hilton stopped attending the grid meetings; not just because they were Coulson’s show, but because once you haven’t got all the right people round the table, they cease to be of any value.
Every government faces leaks; they’re annoying, but they’re rarely fatally damaging. What is fatal is the government losing grip over what it’s announcing, how, when, and most importantly why. If the price you pay for that grip is the occasional unscheduled Sunday paper splash, it’s worth every penny.
There was one passage in The Sunday Times’ expose of Steve Hilton’s Stanford lecture which told me everything about the problems the Government is currently facing. According to the report, Hilton dramatically produced a 1-foot high bundle of paper for his audience representing 4 days worth of documents circulated to Cabinet committees. He then said:
“It just shows you the scale of what you’re up against in trying to control these things. The idea that a couple of political advisers read through all this and spot things are bad, things that are contradictory, is just inconceivable.”
And he’s right, which is precisely why a system has been in place since 1997 which means they don’t have to. The ‘grid system’ initiated by New Labour - transferred from their 1997 election campaign - is commonly considered to be a news management tool, with a series of announcements plotted to dominate each day’s coverage and provide occasional cover to bury bad news.
However, its far more important role was doing precisely what Hilton says is impossible: giving political advisers an easily-digestable paper (no more than 20-30 pages long) containing the key elements of every government announcement or external news item coming up for the next fortnight.
The ‘grid’ itself was simply an aide-memoire version of this longer document, with each announcement arranged in order of importance and general subject area for each of the next fourteen days on two A4 sheets of paper, with the emerging grids for the next two months added on to give a longer-term view.
This ‘Upcoming Business’ document would be circulated by No10’s Strategic Communications Unit each Thursday evening, and would then form the basis of a Friday morning meeting to go through each item in the grid line-by-line.
At different times under the Labour government, these meetings were chaired by Alastair Campbell, Ed Miliband (as Cabinet Office minister) and Jeremy Heywood (as PPS to Gordon Brown). They were attended by every member of the No10 Policy Unit (responsible for shadowing different departments), all key Communications staff, and all the key civil servants in the PM’s private office.
As the cast-list suggests, behind the Cabinet meetings, these were the most important meetings of the week in Downing Street. Upcoming announcements by other departments would be challenged, more information sought, and - because each item would get at least two airings before it was due to be announced - it was (to quote Hilton) “inconceivable” that something would be announced without No10 knowing about it, let alone something that they didn’t agree with.
Take a hypothetical example of how it would work: DEFRA submit an item for the grid one week which simply says they’ll be consulting on options for the rationalisation and improved management of the state-owned forest estate; and they plan to announce this in 10 days time. A couple of curious people round the table say: ‘What’s this about?’ and tell the DEFRA policy shadow to find out more information, and get a copy of the consultation paper.
Next Friday, there’s a lot more detail in the document about the proposal, which DEFRA now plan to announce in 3 days time, at which point everyone around the table says: “Hold on a minute, they want to privatise the forests?! Get it out of the grid, and set up a meeting asap for the PM and the Secretary of State to discuss it. But tell them under no circumstances is this going ahead next week, and if they’ve briefed any Sunday papers, they’d better un-brief it sharpish or we’ll dump all over it.”
So my question is - if what Steve Hilton told his students at Stanford is true - what on earth has happened to the No10 grid system? It’s clearly not working as it once did, as is occasionally obvious from the confusion over what’s being announced and when, the clashes between different good announcements, and the waste of other good announcements on days when bad news is sure to dominate.
Losing the civil servant master of the grid, Paul Brown MBE - who retired early in the Coalition - would have been a blow, but I’m sure his replacement(s) are just as thorough when it comes to making sure the Upcoming Business document is both exhaustive but digestible. My guess is that the apparent failure of the grid system is much less to do with the quality of the civil service legwork going into it, but about the importance accorded it by the No10 political machine.
Here are two straws in the wind which may support that theory:
1. One of Craig Oliver’s first acts as Director of Communications in No10 was to alter the structure of the grid so the week started on a Sunday not on a Monday. A tiny but significant change, because what it revealed was a mindset that the grid was just a news management tool, and news management for each week starts with what’s in the Sunday papers and who’s going on Marr. Whereas the old system - when the week started when Parliament was sitting - reflected a mindset that the grid was chiefly about controlling government business and announcements, not controlling the media; and
2. I was chatting before Christmas to two relatively young, junior members of Downing Street staff - very bright, pleasant, energetic types - and I asked them in passing: “Who’s chairing the grid meetings these days?” After all, based on past history, it could be Craig Oliver, Francis Maude or Chris Martin (David Cameron’s current PPS). Or based on seniority in today’s No10, it could be Andrew Cooper, Ed Llewellyn or even George Osborne. One of them answered: “I’m not sure”. The other answered: “I don’t know if we still do grid meetings”. Now, as I say, they were junior, but the idea that what used to be the second most important meeting of the week in Downing Street is now one that is barely on the radar of two members of No10 staff seems deeply worrying to me.
We’re forever being told that David Cameron, George Osborne and their teams are devotees of Tony Blair’s style of government, but if they have genuinely ditched or downgraded the key mechanism by which his Downing Street managed the business of government, it is a shocking blindspot in their devotion, and one that needs correcting. Sharpish.