I got that Autumn Statement totally wrong. Besides the prospect of no further micro-tinkering with the tax system – which everyone could forecast – my other confident predictions were as follows:
1. George Osborne would suck up the terrible numbers on growth and borrowing, accept he would miss his fiscal targets, get all the bad news out of the way, write it off as a rubbish year, and play the long game; and
2. He wouldn’t do any big ticket measures on the grounds there is no point wasting good announcements on a bad news day, or doing anything controversial to compound that bad news.
On both counts, I was totally wrong.
He couldn’t do much about the bad growth forecasts, but he’s pulled out all the stops to make the deficit and debt figures less dire, including some accounting tricks which would impress Derren Brown let alone Gordon, and as a result has stayed on the same golf course as his fiscal targets.
And he’s made a valiant, and potentially successful, effort to wipe the numbers off the news with some very big ticket announcements on infrastructure, fuel duty, personal allowances and business taxes, paid for by some massive plus column dei ex machina (£3.5bn from the 4G spectrum sale in Year 1; £3.1bn from the Swiss Government in Year 2; and £2.4bn from his fellow Ministers’ budgets in Year 3), coupled with the ongoing war of accretion against welfare recipients.
Is it all credible? The genius of today’s statement (or the foolishness, depending on your perspective) is that we won’t know for months. These aren’t measures which will unravel by the weekend like the last Budget, and they’ve been carefully chosen with that in mind.
So we could look back and say this was the day when George Osborne restored his strategic reputation and put himself back on the path to No10 with a brilliantly-designed set of measures to get on top of the worst set of numbers he ever had to face.
Or we could look back and say this was the day he departed from reality, missed the chance to draw a line under his annus horribilis, and thus guaranteed that when the numbers are even worse next time, and his credibility is exhausted, it’ll be Goodnight Gideon.
Which will it be? I’m not predicting anything after today. Except this.
If George Osborne goes down, Robert Chote is going with him. Why? For me, the most significant line in the whole Autumn Statement document – because it will be the first big test of its credibility – is at Paragraph 2.43: “Following…independent analysis of the likely valuation of [4G] spectrum receipts by the OBR, the receipts will be reflected…at £3.5 billion.”
That £3.5 billion – not a rough projection but a figure now banked in the public finances – is what allowed the Chancellor to say that borrowing was falling this year; it’s what allowed him to do a billion quid of fiscal loosening for each of the following 3 years and claim that the package was fiscally-neutral overall. It’s a hell of a bet, and it’s Chote who made it.
We’ll find out in March if he was right or not.
For a policy geek like me, who spent 3 years in charge of policy on alcohol duties, hearing that the Government was publishing proposals on a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) today felt like being part of the mob at New York Harbour waiting for the arrival of the final chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop to see if Little Nell had died.
Having driven through my own seemingly radical reform of the alcohol tax system in 2002, introducing Progressive Beer Duty (a halving of the duty rate paid by small brewers), and seen the explosion in British microbreweries that followed in the decade since, I imagined the civil servants sweating all morning over the impact of these changes.
And as I said on Twitter this morning, the questions for me were how on earth the Government could enforce a MUP except through taxation, but what the consequences would be for Britain’s drinks industry and consumption habits if it did attempt to impose a 45 pence minimum of excise duty (or duty plus VAT) per unit of alcohol sold?
Opening the consultation document earlier, I was giddy with excitement and trepidation about how they’d solved this conundrum: how could they enforce the MUP except through means that would cause political, industry and consumer chaos. And the answer is: Ummm, they haven’t.
There was not a word about enforcement of the MUP (or the related ban on multi-buy offers) in the main consultation document, but turn to ‘Impact Assessment A’, and we find the following extraordinary ‘interim assumptions’:
In the 350-odd licensing authorities in England and Wales, on average responsible for almost 500 licensed premises each, it is intended that there will be ONE individual (either local government, police or trading standards – yet to be determined which) spending 2 hours per week enforcing the new rules. The total cost of enforcement is therefore estimated to be circa £500,000 per year.
For the MUP, we then get this line:
“Enforcement authorities will need to check product prices against the MUP and would only expect to do so when there has been a representation to the enforcing authority which suggests that premises may be in breach of their licence conditions. We expect that enforcement officers will only choose to check alcohol products that are considered to be very low cost and random sample products if necessary.”
Similarly, for multi-buy products, we get this:
“Enforcement authorities would need to check that products or promotions falling within the scope of the ban had been removed. We expect that enforcement officers will only choose to do so where there has been a representation to the enforcing authority which suggests that a premises may be in breach of their licensing conditions, although they may also choose to randomly sample products or promotions if necessary.”
So let’s get this straight. The enforcement of this major flagship reform depends on people complaining to their local authority that the off licence at the end of the street is selling alcohol at below 45p per unit, or selling packs of six lagers at a discount price compared to the cost of six on their own.
Does anyone spot a flaw in that plan? If the same off licence had a reputation for selling booze or cigarettes to under-age kids, then not only would the offence be clear cut to most locals, but the chances of them being reported would be reasonably good.
But the idea that shopkeepers who have the temerity to offer their wares at discount prices will routinely be dobbed in by their customers (or indeed fellow shopkeepers) is right up there with the notion that homeowners should report builders and plumbers who offer them a cash price for a job.
Of course, the big supermarkets and off licence chains won’t have much choice but to comply because their prices are centrally set; and most pubs, clubs and restaurants won’t be affected; but according to the Home Office’s own consultation document, that leaves at least 56,149 small and micro-sized off-trade premises where the Government is relying on some form of citizen-led enforcement.
As a result of these measures, those places might take down the signs in their windows offering six cans of Stella for a fiver so as not to attract the attention of any passing busybodies, but does anyone think that means the offers themselves will disappear? Especially for locals who’ve been using those same off licences and corner shops, and enjoying those deals, for years.
In fact, given the big supermarkets will no longer be able to offer large discount prices and multi-buy offers, those small shops should see an increase in business – the same shops which are (compared to the necessarily stringent standards of a Tesco or Sainsbury’s) less choosy about the age of those they sell to, what time they start or stop serving booze, and whether they serve people who are already hammered.
In short, the enforcement regime set out today will not work, and could prove a tad counter-productive. Now the government surely aren’t stupid. Whoever wrote that impact assessment must have realised it sounded hopelessly detached from reality. So what’s the real game?
I come back to what I said at the outset. The only way this policy can be sensibly enforced is through taxation. The only way it can be made secure from legal challenge on competition grounds is through taxation. The only way it will ever be introduced in practice is through taxation. As for the explanations given in ‘Impact Assessment A’ as to why it’s not being done through taxation, they are so thin that a more cynical man would think they were designed to be overcome.*
So I’m prepared to predict that either today’s measures (the MUP and multi-buy ban specifically) are introduced as proposed, and then widely-ignored by half the population, like the laws on littering or seat-belts in the back seat. Or more likely, the Government will conclude that, after due consideration and consultation, they’ve decided to implement it through taxation.
And, at that point, for the reasons described in my earlier blog on this subject, all hell with break loose.
* For example, we’re told that “a rise in alcohol duty would affect all types of alcohol products, including the most expensive products” whereas “a MUP is intended to specifically target the sale of cheap alcohol products”. Erm, a minimum duty rate (or duty plus VAT rate) of 45p per unit would make not a blind bit of difference to the price of “the most expensive products”, whereas it would jack up the price of all reasonably-priced beer and cider and cheaper bottles of wine. We’re also told that “there is no requirement for retailers to pass through higher duties into prices, so higher duties will not automatically raise the price of cheap alcohol”. Erm, the Home Office can pull the other one if they’re arguing retailers would be able or willing to absorb a 45p per unit duty rate, rather than passing it on to consumers.
The two most important civil servants in No10 are the PM’s Official Spokesman and the PM’s Principal Private Secretary. One runs his press office; the other runs his private office. Put another way, one controls what the PM thinks, says and does publicly; the other controls his diary and the work he does behind closed doors.
If those two offices are not run fluently and coherently, Downing Street cannot function, and the PM cannot govern effectively. There are of course one or two other things and people which affect the successful functioning of the government, but unless you have excellent individuals in the roles of PMOS and PPS, the battle is already lost.
So even though the news has gone largely unreported, it’s hugely important that Jean-Christophe Gray – widely known as JC Gray* – has been appointed as the new PMOS, in which role he will give twice-daily official briefings to the Parliamentary press, speaking ex cathedra on behalf of David Cameron and the Government.
It’s an immensely tough role, in which you’re never more than one misplaced phrase or unintended admission away from causing a media storm. Too many of those and you won’t last long, but go in the other direction – know nothing, say nothing, refuse to confirm the truth or even answer your phone – and you will lose all respect and trust. That’s fine if you just want to get through each day, but not if you want to help the PM survive when he’s next at the epicentre of a shitquake.
JC will not be fazed by difficult days, having managed the Treasury press office during tough periods under Alistair Darling and George Osborne. But more importantly, he has two key characteristics that will stand him in good stead:
He’s got integrity. When he was working in Gordon Brown’s private office and I was the Treasury’s head of communications, JC told me that he’d struck up a friendship with a journalist and was planning to invite her round for dinner. Was this OK? When I next saw him, he looked like someone had shot his dog. How did the date go? “Well, it was going really well,” he said, “but then she started talking about the pressure she was under at work, having to find out what was happening with council tax revaluation, and asked whether that had crossed my desk…..So I asked her to leave.” You did what?! “Well I was very nice about it, but I said it was best we left it there.” I may be wrong, but that kind of reaction is not the mark of a man who would ever mislead a journalist or deny something he knew to be true.
He’s also a professional. He’ll get flustered on occasions but he’ll never shirk his job, let the pressures get to him, or be flippant about the power he holds. On the day of Budget 2011, I made my annual ‘mystery shopper’ call to the Treasury press office, and hit the jackpot, being referred to JC himself. Affecting a suitable accent, I said I was the beer correspondent for the Huddersfield Examiner, and was furious about the abolition of tax relief for Mathers’ Black Beer (a pre-cursor of the bigger and more damaging changes HMRC slipped past the keeper in Budget 2012). JC corpsed. I could hear him desperately stifling the giggles as I thundered on – with genuine conviction – about the impact on local brewing heritage. “Are ya laffin, lad?” I asked. He composed himself, and gave a beautifully-crafted and sensitively-phrased explanation for the change. Almost as impressive as his recovery and his answer was the fact that he handled the call himself; a less consummate professional would have thought it was beneath him, and referred it to HMRC.
But – as well-suited as JC may be for the role – there’s a more important issue to address about his appointment. It continues a remarkable recent hegemony over the PMOS and PPS roles by individuals who have graduated from senior roles either in the Chancellor’s private office or the Treasury press office, or in JC’s case, both.
The current PPS – appointed earlier this year – is Chris Martin, a former Treasury head of communications. For the previous 13 years, the role of PPS had been held by graduates of Ken Clarke’s or Gordon Brown’s Treasury private office: Jeremy Heywood (twice), Ivan Rogers, Tom Scholar and James Bowler. The exception in that period was Oliver Robbins, but he was as central to Gordon Brown’s Treasury operation as any of the others.
As for the PMOS, the hegemony is more short-lived but now seemingly entrenched. Since 2007, the role has gone from Michael ‘The Sheik’ Ellam to Steve ‘Jonatton Yeah?’ Field, both former Treasury heads of communication and masters of the PMOS art, and now to JC Gray. The exception in that period was Simon Lewis, a rare outsider, who served for less than a year at the tail-end of the Labour government.
There is one way to look at all this.
You could argue that, since the Treasury has traditionally had the pick of the best fast stream recruits to the Home Civil Service and the best of those will usually end up in the most important Treasury positions, then their further ascendance to the top jobs in No10 is simply a case of cream rising to the top.
You could also argue that there is no better training for those No10 jobs than their equivalent posts in the Treasury, and that the preference for Treasury types reflects the current centrality of the economy to No10’s work. Whereas with Ivan Rogers, Ollie Robbins and Jeremy Heywood, Tony Blair was poaching Gordon Brown’s talent, it is now a case of No10’s chief strategist, George Osborne, recommending people he knows are up to the job.
But there’s another way to look at it.
If, every time there’s a vacancy in the PMOS or PPS roles, No10 continues drawing on the same narrow field of Treasury candidates, all themselves drawing on similar working experiences, you do risk ending up with a certain homogeneity in the way that the jobs are approached.
And like all narrow gene pools, the effects are multiplied the longer the cycle is unbroken. Given that interviewers tend to select the candidate who most resembles themselves, the fact that most of the individuals I’ve mentioned recruited each other at various points reinforces that trend, as does the fact that they all came through the same brutal selection process to become fast stream civil servants in the first place.
Again, given that these individuals are generally the best and brightest Whitehall has to offer, you might argue this is no bad thing. And having myself benefited from this process, I’m hardly in a position to criticise it. However, like all the others, I’m white, male and heterosexual, with a degree from Oxbridge. When I was appointed as the Treasury’s head of communications in 2003, all seven people involved in my interview process (bar Edinburgh-educated Gordon) were the same.
The Treasury recently completed its 2012 recruitment process for new ‘policy advisers’, specifying the minimum requirement of a 2:1 degree. The blurb says: “We want to do everything we can to ensure that we reflect the society we serve”, but while the recruitment forms, tests and interviews will be daunting to many candidates, they’ll be routine to many others from entrance applications to grammar school, private school or Oxbridge.
The Treasury’s standard application form for more senior jobs contains a sequence of three sections for ‘Higher Education’, ‘Subject of Postgraduate Research (if any)’, and ‘Professional Qualifications’. These are not ‘mandatory fields’ but it would take a particularly confident soul to leave them blank and carry on in good heart with the rest of their application, and a particularly wise Treasury manager who would carry on reading it with an open mind.
None of this means the Treasury, and by extension No10, is necessarily recruiting the wrong people to the most important posts, but we do have to ask what they’re missing out on by effectively excluding the vast majority of the civil service, not to mention 99.99% of the entire working population, from the reckoning.
And that matters if you assume, as I do, that there are a huge number of highly intelligent, brilliantly creative, politically astute individuals in Britain, with the same integrity and professionalism as a JC Gray, who would never even get their foot in the Treasury’s door – let alone have the chance to rise to the most senior positions – because they did not go to University, or because they are unable to present themselves as a ‘Treasury type’ at interview.
I grew up with friends who started work in the City without A Levels or degrees in the 1990s; they would make brilliant Treasury advisers on finance or trade, but would never get a look in. I know journalists from my time in government whose only qualification is shorthand but would never have let the pasty tax into the Budget. And, during my period in the education and charity sectors, I’ve met exceptional people who absolutely should be advising on child welfare policy rather than some 21-year old graduate from Peterhouse.
Some of the most important work being done on politics at the moment is by Labour MPs Jon Trickett and Gloria De Piero (see here and here) and Lib Dem activist Louise Shaw (see here and here). From different perspectives, they’re all looking at what kind of people are attracted to a career in politics in the first place, which of them are able to get started, and how those with alternative backgrounds, family lives, emotional needs and income levels (or a simple lack of know-how or contacts) are put off or weeded out.
Jon Trickett has made the point that 91 per cent of those MPs returned at the 2010 election went to University, and of the 9 per cent who did not, we can also note that only the Tories’ Patrick McLoughlin and the excellent Grant Shapps now attend either the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet. Where is Labour’s next Alan Johnson or the Lib Dems’ next Paddy Ashdown? That is precisely what Jon, Gloria and Louise are looking to change, but it’s an uphill struggle.
By comparison, widening the field of civil servants we recruit to staff our government offices and fill the most important roles in the Treasury and No10 should not be so hard. It just requires the Jeremy Heywoods, Chris Martins and JC Grays of the world to recognise – as I have, with the benefit of some external perspective – that, when the time comes to find their own successors, they need to add some fresh blood to the family.
The Treasury’s ‘policy adviser’ recruitment blurb says: “HM Treasury believes a diverse workforce makes a positive impact on what we can achieve”. Right you are, chaps, let’s see you do something about it.
* = A now forgotten fact: JC Gray is only called JC Gray because of Gordon Brown’s total inability to say difficult names. He tried several times to get the hang of saying ‘Jean Christophe’ when barking out instructions to the new recruit in his private office, before the solution of using ‘JC’ was suggested to him instead. To avoid confusion, everyone else started referring to Jean Christophe as ‘JC’ as well, and that became his name. There but for the grace of God went we all. Shortly afterwards, another new recruit – the wonderful Rita Patel, now Mrs Phil French – joined the private office, and having been warned about JC’s experience, she was determined not to be similarly re-named. So when Gordon introduced her happily as ‘Ruth’ to a large gathering of external businesspeople on her first day in the job, she shouted at him: “It’s Rita, Chancellor, RITA!” I’d like to say that he coolly replied: “OK Rita, but it’s not Chancellor, it’s Gordon”, but I think he was too taken aback. He never got her name wrong again though.
70 years ago today, Philip ‘Pip’ Monks, an old boy of Finchley Catholic Grammar School (FCGS), died in hospital of injuries sustained while preparing for active service in the Royal Tank Corps.
Pip was born in Cricklewood in 1922, and joined FCGS as a 10 year old boy in the Preparatory School. The Albanian records that:
“Although he achieved no outstanding distinction, he was of a strong and solid character, loyal and devoted to his School, popular with his fellows and true to type in all that one would expect from a boy who had nobly played his part in deriving the fullest advantage from his school life.”
In his last year at school, he played cricket for the First XI, and was appointed one of the Assistant Prefects. He also took part in the school’s 1938 football tour of the Rhineland, and was one of those who said farewell to their German hosts looking forward to a return match in London.
After leaving school, Pip followed his father into the Merchant Navy, joining the New Zealand Shipping Company. In 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps. Training for the tank regiments was rigorous, and accidents were frequent. In the course of practice manoeuvres in late October, he was badly hurt, succumbing to his injuries a few days later.
Father Parsons, the Head Boy and a number of pupils attended Pip’s funeral and requiem in Kensal Green, where he is buried. His father, Thomas Vernon Monks, was absent at sea on his Merchant Navy duties and unable to attend his son‟s funeral.
Philip is also remembered on a memorial erected at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire by the New Zealand Shipping Companies to mark the hundreds of their employees lost in the war.
And we remember him still with fondness and gratitude at the school today. May He Rest In Peace.
Does David Cameron believe in karma? If so, he must wonder whether the current state of his Premiership is some cosmic payback for the events of 5 years ago, when it was Gordon Brown experiencing one ‘worst week ever’ after another, and Cameron leading the gleeful taunts.
The Election that Never Was, the feuding of Gordon’s inner circle, Anthony Seldon’s ‘Blair Unbound’ biography, the Scottish elections fiasco, the ongoing row over ‘British jobs for British workers’, another Foot & Mouth leak from the Pirbright laboratory, the loss of the child benefit discs, David Abrahams’ dodgy donations, the rows over Wendy Alexander’s and Peter Hain’s undeclared donations. Over a two-month period, every time we thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse, and the demands from the party’s so-called grey beards for someone to ‘get a grip’ grew ever louder..
Now David Cameron must know the feeling. Unfortunately for him, he seems to be lurching into some of the same mistakes which – with the luxury of considerable hindsight – I can see that Gordon made in that period, prolonging the vicious circle of bad headlines and misguided responses.
First, he – like Gordon – is trying to announce his way out of the crisis, going into each Sunday morning and each PMQs with a fresh attempt to get on top of the news agenda with some random, focus group designed announcement. At its very least, this is a waste of potentially good stories and speeches which should be held back until there’s a chance of them being heard; worse, it leads to the bungled announcement of half-baked policies, like the fuel bills balls-up; and worse still, it leads to ridiculous headlines like “Cameron: Now Mug A Hoodie”.
Second, he and his team are fighting forest fires with buckets of sand, when what they need is proper firebreaks, i.e. moments when the pre-existing political news agenda is suspended (or at least turned into a backdrop) while another issue or event comes to the fore. It could be a Budget, a Queen’s Speech, a trip to Washington, a Defence White Paper: anything which obliges the political media to focus their attention elsewhere for a few days, not least – to put it crudely – if they want to get an exclusive preview. So where are the Coalition’s firebreaks? The only one I can see on the horizon is George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on 5th December; that feels a long time away.
Third, and not for the first time, David Cameron is coming across like a one-man band. He is trying to do too much himself, and is over-exposed in the media. Why is he making a crime speech in the first place? Why is he announcing energy policy? These are the acts of a PM who feels a personal pressure – but also a personal responsibility – to turn things around. If he was on good form, this might be an OK thing, but I fear what political insiders view as robust media performances come across to the public as irritable. Plus when the PM takes all the load on himself, the Cabinet switch off and start watching comedy DVDs in first class carriages without thinking about how that looks.
Fourth, the one vital antidote to any temporary mood of crisis is the sense that the person in charge has bigger and more important things to worry about. Obviously the main thing that will determine the next election is the state of the economy and the deficit, but to the extent that the PM projects himself as being “100% focused” on those issues, it tends to be about the next set of jobs and growth figures, or what’s happened with the deficit since the election, not about the really big picture. If I was him, I would immerse myself in the details of the Basel III bank regulations and forecasts of Chinese commodity inventories, and adopt an air – or even better, adopt the reality – of constant concern about what will happen to the world economy in 2014.
Finally, and most importantly, we hear the dread call for “fresh blood” in No10. There are two phrases that every former Gordon Brown staffer got used to hearing when he couldn’t hide his exasperation with them any longer. The first – delivered slowly and usually punctuated with a pounding fist on the back of a chair – was “Too. Many. Mistakes.” The second – delivered in a strangled growl, usually at the person he wanted to murder on the spot – was: “I NEED NEW PEOPLE”.
So it is we hear the demands for David Cameron to get rid of Andrew Cooper and Craig Oliver or rein in Sir Jeremy Heywood, and we can be fairly sure that David Cameron and George Osborne are discussing exactly those issues, not least as they ponder how to fill the gaps that are being left in the communications operation with the departures of Steve Field and Gabby Bertin.
It is always tempting to think that your problems will be solved by hiring new or better people, and that is exactly the route that Gordon went down after his two months from hell in 2007.
Not only did that not work for Gordon, it proved positively damaging, as the new staff struggled to find their feet in an atmosphere of rolling crisis management, and as morale amongst his pre-existing team of civil servants and special advisers collapsed to rock bottom. And if there’s one thing you can’t afford when you’re handling crises, it’s half your people not knowing what they’re supposed to do, and the other half not feeling motivated to do it.
I don’t know whether David Cameron needs new people or not, but I do know this: the people are not the most important thing; it’s the function he gives them, and that brings me to the three people who can save Dave’s Premiership.
If you want to learn about handling crises in government, you shouldn’t watch The West Wing or The Thick Of It; just watch The Larry Sanders Show. Almost every episode tells the story of how a group of people, whatever the dysfunctional behind-the-scenes turmoil, manage to present a successful show at the end of the day. And besides Larry – who is obviously Cameron right down to the luxurious hair – there are 3 individuals who are essential to making every show a success, all with distinct responsibilities, all comparable to roles in Downing Street:
Paula (Janeane Garofalo) is not just the talent-booker; she is the talent – the brains and creativity of the show, but rooted in the real world of what will work and what the audience will like. She is also the show’s strategic planner, spotting problems and filling holes, whether days in advance or minutes before show-time. In No10, she would be in charge of the strategic grid, planning the firebreaks, spotting the opportunities, stopping the screw-ups, and ensuring the talent from elsewhere in the Cabinet gets a chance to shine.
Beverly (Penny Johnson) runs Larry’s life. She manages his time, energy and mood, deciding who he needs to see and what he needs to do. Nobody else has this control, not even Larry’s wives, and it is not shared with anyone. In No10, she would be the PM’s gatekeeper, diary manager and closest confidante, and crucially, she would have the power to tell the civil servants, press officers and advisers who all want a piece of his time and energy when they can and cannot have it.
Artie (Rip Torn) has one job: making the whole operation work, and ensuring that when the curtain goes up, the audience sees an entertaining, professional show, and a smiling, relaxed host. He saves Larry from the stuff he doesn’t have to deal with, and deals brutally with anyone trying to undermine Larry or disrupt the show. In No10, he’d be the person who’d ensure everyone else was doing their job and nothing was distracting the PM from doing his. Like it or not, Andrew Mitchell would have been gone in 5 minutes with an Artie in the room.
At present, David Cameron looks to me like he’s in one of those Larry Sanders episodes where the network is trying to make him change his style, or where he feels he needs to bring in new writers, or where he’s worried about some rival presenter stealing his show or being upstaged by one of the guests. Worse still, his Cabinet and many of his officials and advisers are acting like a bunch of Hanks and Phils, worried about their own interests and futures, not about protecting his.
If he wants to shake up his personnel in No10, and he feels that is crucial in order to get out of the current crisis mode, then he first needs to establish what jobs need doing. He needs to create and then fill the roles of an Artie, a Paula and a Beverly, whether that means giving more power to existing staff members or bringing in new people.
In his time in Downing Street, Gordon didn’t have any individual playing any of those roles. Not even Sue Nye enjoyed the exclusive power over his time and energy that a proper Beverly would have, he lacked a consistent Paula figure, and he never came close to establishing an Artie.
If David Cameron sorts out those roles, then things like planning firebreaks, avoiding botched announcements, focusing on the big picture, and getting the rest of the Cabinet to raise their game will become that much easier. And most importantly, it will allow him to get back to presenting himself as a relaxed, confident, natural Prime Minister. With great hair.
On this day, 40 years ago, a rugby team set off from Montevideo in Uruguay for their second tour of Chile. They were accompanied by two dozen friends and family helping to pay for the charter of the Uruguayan Air Force plane.
After bad weather halted their first attempt to cross the Andes, they tried again the next day. Flying in thick cloud above the mountains, the pilots of Flight 571 got their calculations horribly wrong. Descending into what they thought was Chile, they instead emerged in the middle of the mountains.
Both wings were ripped off the plane, and one sliced off the tail. The fuselage crashed up the mountainside, crushing the passengers inside, and came to a halt almost more than 12,000 feet above sea level, in sub-zero temperatures. 12 passengers and crew were killed in the crash and its immediate aftermath. 33 remained alive, some with terrible injuries.
What happened to that group of 33 over the next 3 months became one of the 20th century’s most dramatic and haunting tales of hardship, courage and survival, which is why I will be chronicling the history of those 3 months in real-time on a new Twitter feed.
It is a story of brotherhood tested under the most extraordinary circumstances. There was no one leader. Some individuals who initially rallied the group eventually succumbed to despair. Others overcame deep personal grief to become heroes when the time came to seek rescue.
It is a story of faith. All on board the plane were Catholics, and for many, it was their faith and prayer that sustained their hope, and which enabled them to transform in their minds what the world would describe as cannibalism into a sacred act of sacrifice and communion.
It is above all a story about the triumph of the human spirit; the determination to survive. The group regularly had to deal with the crushing of their hopes: the news coming through via radio that all searches had been called off; the avalanche that claimed the lives of many who had survived the crash. But no matter how bad things got, their sheer will to live triumphed.
I’ve been inspired by the story of the survivors since first reading Piers Paul Read’s classic account ‘Alive’, and later by reading the 2006 first person account by Nando Parrado, ‘Miracle In The Andes’, and much of the material on the Twitter feed will be derived from those sources. If you’re interested in this subject and have not read those books, do get them from Amazon.
Shortly after the remaining survivors were finally rescued, the father of one of those who had not returned wrote an open letter to the newspapers, saying:
“We invite every citizen of our country to spend some minutes in meditation on the immense lesson of solidarity, courage and discipline which has been left to us by these boys in the hope that it will serve us all to overcome our mean egotism and petty ambitions, and our lack of interest for our brothers.”
Amen to that.
I’m going to take a wild guess on something, based on 3 reasonable assumptions and a bit of background knowledge:
1. I don’t think there’s any way The Sun would launch a front page campaign to strip Jimmy Saville of his knighthood - along with a detailed description of the law change required to make it happen - unless No10 had given them some kind of nod that they were sympathetic to the proposal.
2. Hence I don’t think it was any kind of accident or a case of being under-briefed that David Cameron told Daybreak this morning that: “We have in Britain something called the forfeiture committee…that looks at whether honours should be rescinded and I’m sure that they will obviously want to do their jobs.”
3. Equally, I don’t think it was a cock-up that despite the PM’s words, a Cabinet Office spokesman then said that the question did not arise since the knighthood became defunct upon Saville’s death, thus making Cameron look rather foolish - something The Times captures here in its juxtaposition of the two headlines.
So what is going on? Here’s where some background knowledge may be helpful.
The idea of awarding posthumous honours has been around for many years, most notably with the campaign for Bobby Moore to receive the knighthood that many of his surviving 1966 peers received in the years after his death. After all, posthumous honours already exist, but only in cases where members of the armed forces or emergency services are killed while engaged in acts of great bravery.
The last great effort to introduce posthumous honours was led by myself and Ian Austin MP, with the support of Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson in 2008/09.
We seized on the campaign by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) to see honours awarded to - excuse the phrase - those British ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’ who had helped Jewish people to escape the concentration camps, usually at great risk to themselves, while working in Britain’s embassies in Germany and Occupied Europe. In many cases, their heroic deeds had gone unknown and unrecognised in their own lifetimes, a classic example of why posthumous honours are required.
To be honest, my own interest in posthumous honours was primarily football-related, thinking about all those managerial legends whose achievements in the game would have undoubtedly brought them knighthoods in today’s honours system, but who had died unrecognised: Herbert Chapman, Jock Stein, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough, to name four obvious candidates.
We were encouraged in our efforts by Gordon, who added his own cause celebre to ours: he felt that British society owed it to Alan Turing to recognise his great service and the appalling way he had been treated, not just by apologising to him in the House of Commons as Gordon did, but by giving him the knighthood that he had deserved in his lifetime.
Usually, if the combined weight of Gordon, Tom, Ian and I wanted something done, we could get it done, but on this occasion, we met an immovable object: the combined strength of the Civil Service and the Palace establishment. They were not having it, not under any circumstances, but once we got them at least to explain their reasoning, it was one of the most memorable policy ding-dongs I ever experienced.
We went back and forth over a period of weeks: they would list 10 reasons why it couldn’t possibly happen; I’d challenge all of them; they’d concede 2 but insist on the remaining 8; I’d challenge again, and so on, like boxers going toe-to-toe seeing who would get exhausted first.
- We cannot impose honours on people who do not have the opportunity to refuse them….But you do it for deceased police officers and soldiers - no-one asks them - and in any case, why not just ask their surviving families?
- We cannot second-guess the judgements made by honours committees in previous years who chose not to honour these individuals….But some of them - like the Holocaust Heroes - died without anyone knowing what they’d done; and some of them - like Chapman and Stein - dropped dead in the middle of their careers; there wasn’t time to honour them.
- We cannot make judgements now based on today’s criteria and standards and apply them retrospectively to previous eras when different criteria and standards applied….If you mean that Alan Turing couldn’t get a knighthood because he was a homosexual, then are you really saying we should stand by that?
- We only have a set number of honours to award each year; if you want to give some to dead people, you’re going to have to exclude deserving living people….Cobblers - just set aside 10 extra honours per year, and choose the most deserving posthumous candidates each time.
- To whom is Her Majesty supposed to make the award?….Are you serious: you already make awards to half the recipients of the Victoria Cross without them physically receiving it - stop being daft.
- How far back are we supposed to go? Do you want to propose that Boadicea is made a Dame?….Again, let’s not be daft. But if you want a cut off point, let’s go back to 1917 when the Honours System as we know it now came into being.
I nearly had them beaten. But ultimately they fell back on two incontrovertible arguments:
- HM The Queen doesn’t want to do it, and if the PM feels so strongly about it, he will need to take it up with her personally (I’m not sure they ever consulted HM The Queen, but were quite happy to use her name anyway); and
- All this is a nonsense anyway, since to be awarded a knighthood is really to be made a member of the Order of the Bath, etc. You cease to be a member when you die; it follows that dead people cannot be made members.
Ultimately, the dismissive way in which the second reason was presented meant that the first would never be challenged; neither Gordon nor any other PM was going to make an eejit of themselves by proposing the change if ’nonsense’ was going to feature in the first line of HM The Queen’s response.
Gordon, Ian and Tom settled for the compromise of creating a special new medal for the ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’, which was duly awarded to several individuals nominated by the HET, and only I was left to fulminate about the establishment rearguard that had denied Jock Stein and Brian Clough their due recognition. Not for the first time, eh, gents?
Now we step into the present day when The Sun launches its campaign on Jimmy Saville at Tory party conference with a nod and a wink from the political team at No10 (I’m assuming). David Cameron, who had the successful experience of leaning on the Honours Forfeiture Committee over Fred Goodwin, spies an easy win on a populist issue, and effectively throws his weight behind The Sun, only to get totally shit-bagged by his own civil servants in the Cabinet Office.
Why? Because they recognise that if they yield to the campaign on Jimmy Saville, then they concede the principle that knighthoods exist after death, and the only real, incontrovertible argument that they had left the last time this was debated would be instantly destroyed. That’s why they’ve leapt straight to that argument in their response this afternoon.
Does any of this matter? Lots of people will rightly say that the PM, civil servants, special advisers and the Palace should have better things to do than bestowing knighthoods on dead people, or indeed withdrawing them. Lots of people will also rightly say it’s another example of how the whole honours system is a discredited anachronism. But, hell, I bet those same people are more likely to have a discussion about it in the pub tonight than George Osborne’s ‘Swap your Tea Breaks for Tax Breaks’ scheme, or whatever it was called.
And there’s another reason it matters. I never saw a civil service rearguard like the one on posthumous honours in 13 years in government, not even over Dawn Primarolo’s VAT cut on tampons (and that was some rearguard I can tell you). And there was something about it which smacked of the Civil Service/Palace establishment saying to the grubby politicos: “Hands off, plebs - this belongs to us: these are our knighthoods; we decide where they go; and we’re not sharing them with any dead codebreakers or bloody football managers.”
And I’m guessing that - if the Civil Service felt strongly about this when it was just a case of a behind closed doors discussion with me about the pros and cons - they must be blooming furious at the idea of being bounced into it by the PM at a political party conference to get a cheap campaign win for News International.
Or maybe I’m just bitter. But I bet David Cameron and The Sun know the feeling this afternoon. More power to your elbow, chaps - that rearguard is cracking - and they won’t dare plead opposition from HM The Queen in this case.
Ever since I started writing this blog, I’ve had the date October 6th* in my mind – 5 years on from the election that never was, undoubtedly the worst day of my working life, and a disastrous day for the Labour Party and for Gordon Brown in particular. It’s not the pain of remembering that day that’s been on my mind, but how to write about it without simply giving ‘my side’ of a story that’s already been told more ways than Rashomon; and without telling people things they already know from reading the various contemporary newspaper accounts and subsequent biographies.
Most of all, I’ve wanted to avoid – in a way that others frankly haven’t – talking about this issue just in order to settle scores or stir bad blood. For example, I used to dream of confronting Spencer Livermore over the bare-faced lies he told Steve Richards about events on October 6th 2007, but the benefit of a few years’ perspective has taken the heat out of those feelings, and made me feel: “What’s the point?”. So what I’ve tried to do below – rather than a blow-by-blow account – is simply give some personal reflections on ten key moments and memories from the run-up to that day, the day itself, and the aftermath. Apologies in advance for the length of this blog.
The Wisdom of White
Many people have argued that at the first hint of newspaper speculation – fuelled by the ever-increasing poll leads of July, August and September – we should have announced that there would under no circumstances be an early election. The truth is that Gordon’s pollsters were telling him this was a unique opportunity: his personal ratings and the Labour poll lead were beyond anything they’d expected, and the strong feeling was that they would never be this good again.
If you’ll forgive the football metaphor, it’s like an away team finding themselves 3-0 up after 10 minutes at Old Trafford. Sit back and defend, and you allow United back into the game. The best option is to keep attacking, get the crowd on United’s back, keep their defence in disarray, and see if you can get another couple of goals. So once the speculation started, the instinct wasn’t to rule out an election, but to keep attacking.
And much as the media later blamed GB and his team for all that, they too were players rather than observers. It suited them because it was an exciting story, but more than that, every journalist had a personal view on whether we should or shouldn’t ‘go for it’. Some on the right thought Cameron was an empty suit and wanted an early election to get rid of him. Some on the left thought we needed longer to win back voters who’d left over Iraq. Some just had skiing holidays booked, and would get their diaries out and say: “I don’t mind what you do, but not before November.”
There was only one journalist I spoke to through that entire period – The Guardian’s Michael White – whose view was simply: “You will regret this speculation. Either way you go, the speculation is bad for you, and you’ve got to stop it. Announce what you’re doing now and stick to it.” He talked about how Jim Callaghan had misjudged things in 1978, and how we risked doing the same. He was spot on.
“Build up the Young Guys”
Following Gordon’s speech at the start of the Labour conference, we watched the early evening news in his hotel suite in Bournemouth. The previous year in Manchester, I watched the post-speech smile fall from his face as I told him about Cherie Blair’s ‘That’s a lie’ outburst, but a year later, he was beaming. However, I told him we were going to have a problem filling up the rest of the week with anything other than election frenzy – with every news outlet wanting to be the first to make it official, and reading huge amounts into every word emerging from those in the know.
He narrowed his eyes: “Build up the Young Guys. Turn it into a beauty contest about who’ll take over from me. Don’t for God’s sake say I won’t serve a full term, but say ‘Brown doesn’t want to go on forever. Brown will start putting the next generation into all the senior posts, and one of them will become leader.’ Then Cameron can’t use youth against me. We’ll say: ‘They’ve got one young guy in charge, and that guy Osborne, but Labour’s got all the best young talent coming through.’”
I asked him who he wanted me to talk up as potential future leaders when I briefed this out to the media. His eyes narrowed again, and he reeled off surnames like a football manager naming his First XI: “Purnell. Miliband. Kelly. Burnham. Cooper. Balls. Miliband.” I replied: “You’ve already said Miliband” GB: “Both of them.” Me: “Really? You want me to say Ed Miliband?” He looked surprised: “You need to watch Ed Miliband, he’s the one to watch.”
With my Treasury background, I’d found it hard enough to get used to the two Eds being MPs, let alone one of them leading the party. He carried on: “You know you’ll have to choose between them one day. Who will you back?” “I’m closer to Ed Miliband”, I said. “Don’t base it on who you’re close to”, he said, “base it on who you believe in.” That relaxed, confident conversation convinced me first that we were definitely going for the early election; and second, that GB was already planning to hand over to ‘the next generation’ for a post-Olympics election in 2012.
Two hours later, I was back in GB’s suite with the mood totally transformed by The Times’ splash accusing him of plagiarising speeches by John Kerry and others, an occupational hazard when you had the great US consultant Bob Shrum writing for both men. He was fuming over the suggestion that he’d ripped off his ‘moral compass’ language from John Kerry, mainly because he’d first used it in his father’s funeral eulogy. There was no calming him, and he wasted 24 hours defending his integrity rather than thinking about handling the election announcement, a pattern that would repeat itself in 2009 when The Telegraph broke the expenses scandal with a story about his cleaning bills.
Not One Solitary Seat
Following the Labour conference, the Tories began briefing that even to cut Labour’s majority would be a victory for the Cameron modernisation project, and that the real issue would be whether GB could hold onto those South East marginals that had stayed with Labour in 2005. If not, Blair’s ‘New Labour Coalition’ was dead, and the Tories would win next time round. They knew as well as we did that voters in those marginals were the ones who’d been most hostile to GB before he took over in 2007 (mainly because of taxes) and therefore least impressed by the presentational contrast he offered to Tony Blair, which was going down so well in the rest of the country.
It was when voices from the left started saying the same thing that things became tricky. Martin Kettle wrote a highly critical Guardian column about GB’s prevarication, calling the prospect of an early election an act of “opportunism and no little vanity”. Many left-wing journalists argued in private that if Labour lost even one seat as a result of that ‘vanity’, GB would have to resign. I brought this up at a meeting of the ‘inner circle’, and said surely any working majority for Labour that took us through to a post-Olympics election in 2012 was a triumph compared to where we’d been a year ago? The others round the table looked at me coldly and Ian Austin said: “They’re right – he’d have to resign”.
It seems madness now, but that remained the consensus right up until October 5th when the final decision was made. And this is where the polls were indeed crucial. Every poll that we ever looked at in those weeks – private or public – said that Labour would win a clear majority. When journalists and the Tories later mocked GB, saying: “So you’re saying you didn’t look at the polls, realise you were going to lose, and cancel the election?” he was telling the truth. But the same polls, especially after the Tory conference, said he was going to shed at least a dozen South East (and Midlands) marginals. And once the consensus took hold that a slimmer majority would be a resignation-worthy outcome, that became reason enough not to go for it.
[This is an amended section of my original article after it was pointed out that my memory of this Jonathan Freedland article was entirely wrong!]
However, that all seemed a long way off on the weekend of Tory conference (29/30 September), when the inner circle gathered at Chequers for yet another strategy discussion. For most of us, it was our first time there, and Gordon started the day with a tour of the glorious old building. In a way only he could have got away with, Ed Miliband mimicked a Jewish patriarch being shown round his successful grandson’s house: “Nice place you’ve got here, Gordon, nice bit of real estate”.
We sat around the grand dining-table, and Gordon opened things up by saying: “Right, I want to go round and flush out all the reasons why we shouldn’t go for it”. There was silence, eventually broken by Ed Balls: “Well just to play devil’s advocate…..” One after another, those round the table offered desultory arguments against an early election. Douglas: “Voter registration’s going to be a problem – lots of students will be disenfranchised” Ed Miliband: “It’ll be dark before and after work – lots of people will just stay home rather than vote in the dark.”
Gordon called a halt to the discussion, and moved on to all the reasons we should go for it, receiving a much more enthusiastic response. I made my one contribution to the discussion. “Well, from a media perspective, I think we’ve got to think about the reaction if we decide not to go for it now – they’ll absolutely slaughter us.” One of the MPs looked down the table at me and said: “Hold on, the worst possible reason to go for it is what happens if we don’t.” There was a murmur of assent. I remember immediately thinking: “Isn’t that the best possible reason to go for it?”, but I didn’t say it out loud and the moment passed.
Location is Everything
One of the cardinal rules of political PR is to make sure you’re in direct contact with the person writing the story. That may sound obvious, but too many spindoctors rely on emails or press releases or getting a story on the newswires, when the art of spin is about talking a journalist through your message and the context, preferably face to face so you can be sure they’re actually listening.
One of the worst things a politician can do is make an announcement on a regional visit or a trip overseas when the story will be written out of London: a recipe either to be ignored or – to use a technical term – shit-bagged. In August 2006, George Osborne went to Japan, and announced that he wanted to build one of their magnetic-levitating train lines back in Britain.
I absolutely destroyed him that day: the history of accidents and fires on mag-levs; the fact it wouldn’t have time to get up to top speed on the route Osborne was proposing. I was told by one journalist that Osborne texted him and said: “What’s going on with this story? Why is everyone so down on it?” He said he replied: “You’ve just met the Dog” (Mad Dog – rather than McPoison – was my lobby nickname).
When Osborne made his announcement on Inheritance Tax** at the Tory conference, to be paid for by a new levy on non-doms, it was another chance for me to destroy him, and on my specialist subject too. The sums didn’t come close to adding up, and I was confident it would become another example of a panicky Tory party scoring own goals. But the story was being reported out of Blackpool, by journalists with Tory spindoctors and the cheers of the conference hall in their ears. I couldn’t get a hearing.
The same was true when GB flew to Iraq on 2nd October – on the advice of civil servants who wanted to get a visit in before election purdah began. When the Tories wheeled out John Major to complain about the ‘cynical timing’, a story that should have been covered by the journalists with GB in Iraq became a story written out of Blackpool, with predictable results.
Those two events didn’t feel to me like game-changers in themselves – at least at the time – but they did shift the media momentum, and hardened the poll deficit in those crucial South East marginals. They created the climate for GB to wobble when the moment of decision came.
Never Play Poker With Ed Balls
After GB’s return from Iraq, the mood had discernibly shifted. People who had previously been arch proponents of the early election had started to play devil’s advocate more frequently and enthusiastically. It didn’t help that some of the MPs GB was listening to were clearly thinking about their own majorities and whether they personally would survive. GB’s pollsters were also – to cover their backs – starting to paint worst case scenarios, all of which ended up with GB resigning after a drastic reduction in Labour’s majority.
Throughout that wobbly week, the only strong dissenting voice belonged to Ed Balls. His mantra was that – whatever the polls said now – Labour would wipe the floor with the Tories during the election campaign. “These guys are amateurs”, he would say of Cameron and Osborne, “They’ve never fought a general election before – they don’t know what it takes. We’ll just say: ‘Are you really going to trust this pair to run the country? Are you going to take that risk?’”
It was amazing to me that – of all the MPs involved in the decision-making process – only Ed Balls (and to some extent Tom Watson) had any confidence that Labour could increase its lead over the course of a campaign, and was willing to gamble on that outcome. But as I wrote the other day, and as he demonstrated again in 2010 with his call on the economy, Balls has always been good at calculating the odds and knowing when to bet.***
The Last Words
By Friday 5th October, with Balls away in Yorkshire, the inner circle gathered in Alistair Campbell’s old office facing out onto Downing Street, heard the latest unchanged poll findings from marginal constituencies, and sat waiting for Gordon to announce the inevitable.
You’d have forgiven him for lashing out in almost every direction round the room, and he was clearly angry at those who’d urged him along at every stage and were now counselling caution, but he was grimly quiet. Finally he said: “Right, well, does anyone have anything they want to say?”, like the lawyer of a condemned man hoping someone in the courtroom will produce an alibi. Heads bowed. There was silence.
Finally, Bob Shrum cleared his throat. Bob had been in the dog-house since the party conference plagiarism episode, so I admired him for speaking up. “Well, if the worst comes to the worst, and you only get 3 more years, there’s a lot you can do in 3 years. Jack Kennedy only had 3 years.” Gordon didn’t look up, didn’t look back, and walked out of the room. And that was that.
Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa
The media handling of the announcement on the Saturday was nothing short of a catastrophe, and made an already disastrous news story into a total clusterf**k. That is all my fault, although – like a bad workman – I’m going to plead some sub-optimal equipment.
First, there was Gordon. His mood was such that even doing one pre-recorded TV interview with Andrew Marr seemed a massive risk. Asking him to do a press conference or a whole round of interviews could have led to a public meltdown which would probably have forced his resignation and an election anyway. Think his post-Mrs Duffy interview with Jeremy Vine times 1,000.
Second, there was the timing. Every Sunday paper was doing a minimum of 4 pages of coverage on the impending election decision, with polls and “will he, won’t he….should he, shouldn’t he” columns. The announcement on the Saturday was going to come as a complete surprise to them, and – depending when it broke – might have meant pages or sections having to be pulped, columns having to be re-written, and so on.
The long-term damage that would have done to No10’s relationship with the Sunday papers would have been huge – potentially irrecoverable – and if there’s one thing I’d always sought to avoid in my job, it was the Sunday papers turning hostile to GB. The Sundays have the resources, the journalists, the columnists, the readership, the competitive impulse, and the influence over the Sunday broadcast media to kill you politically. What’s more, it’s too debilitating for a senior politician and their team to spend every weekend fire-fighting when they should be re-charging for the week ahead.
So this was how it was supposed to work. I arranged with Andrew Marr’s producer, Barney Jones, on the Friday that Andrew would come in the following afternoon and do the pre-record, so Gordon could explain his decision in his own words, and try and look relaxed about it. Nobody in the BBC would be told this was happening until after it had been done, but extracts would be released to all outlets for the Saturday early evening news.
In the meantime, on Saturday morning, I’d tip off the political editors of all the Sundays that an announcement was coming, on the understanding that this go no further than their editor, news editor and lead columnist so they could re-shape their pages, coverage and columns. You might think that is impossibly naive, but those kind of caveated tip-offs are given all the time to newspapers and they tend to respect them, for the obvious reason that they want the same kind of consideration next time round.
Given the Sundays also had to explain at great length how and why the decision had been taken, I also did what I did best, giving them ‘the colour’: who was in the room when; who said what; which room we were in; what GB had for breakfast. That gave me the licence to spin the line that GB’s mood had been moving against an election for some time, even before the Tory conference and the shift in the polls; there were worries about voter registration, people having to vote in the dark, etc. The desultory devil’s advocate lines from Chequers became serious and influential concerns.
Anyway, that was how it was supposed to work. As far as I’ve pieced it together since, one of the Sundays tipped off Andy Coulson, he tipped off the broadcasters, and all hell broke loose. By the time, Marr arrived to do the interview, every camera in the world was outside Downing Street and Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson and co. were spitting tacks down their microphones outside. It created a sense of utter chaos and shambles around what was already a deeply-damaging story, although I’ll maintain to this day that we were right to avoid permanently p***ing off the Sunday papers.
I’ve no doubt that – like LAPD Officer Karl Hettinger, who surrendered his weapon to two thieves in the Onion Field incident in 1963, and saw his partner shot – my bungling of that day will be taught to young PR professionals for years to come as an example of how not to do things. But the more interesting question to ask them is: how would you have handled it?
Discovering that ‘You’ meant ‘Me’
If you work for someone as driven as Gordon Brown, you accept to some extent that your life will be subsumed to theirs. I was literally at his beck and call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 6 years. It didn’t matter if I was on holiday, cooking Christmas lunch, at a funeral, or – most grievous of all – watching Arsenal, I’d be expected to drop everything to take his calls, or indeed the media’s if there was a story I had to deal with. And I was fine with that. I had no political ambitions, no personal agenda of my own, and my life was about protecting and promoting Gordon, and – by extension, at least as far as I was concerned – the best interests of the Labour party and the country.
For that reason, I got used – over the years – to hearing a journalist use the word ‘you’ and assuming they meant Gordon. “What are you saying about this?” “How are you reacting?” “What are you thinking about conference?” meant Gordon, and I was merely a conduit for his words and views. So on a daily basis, I’d work out what issue we might have to deal with, I’d talk it through with Gordon, he’d give me ‘the line’, and if I agreed it worked, that would become my script.
On fraught days like the cancelled election, or Alistair Darling’s “We’re all doomed” interview with Decca Aitkenhead, or the exposure of David Abrahams’ dodgy donations, Gordon would be absolutely clear with me and his civil service spokesman what our line was, what the story he wanted written was, and our job – however difficult – was to try and deliver it.
If I’d ever rung a journalist and said: “This is Gordon’s position blah blah blah……but by the way, here’s what I personally think” and said the complete opposite – “It’s all Douglas Alexander’s fault” or “Alistair Darling needs to be sacked” or “David Triesman’s in the frame for this one”, not only would I have been failing to get the story Gordon wanted and incurring his wrath in the process, but the journalist concerned would have stopped regarding me as a reliable conduit for Gordon’s views.
So when two journalists rang me on Sunday 7th October, and said “There’s a lot of flak coming your way” and “People are sticking the boot into you quite hard”, it took me a while to realise ‘you’ didn’t mean Gordon; it meant ‘me’. “Me?” I kept saying, “Me? What have I done?” “Well, accusations that you’re briefing against various people for being responsible, but some people are saying that all the media speculation was your fault, and that you’re as responsible as anyone.” “Me? Are you serious? Who’s saying that?” “Well obviously I can’t say, but how do you want to respond?”
Looking back, I had the worst possible reaction – I didn’t care. I just thought: “Sod ‘em. Idiots. They can say what they like.” The trouble is if you think like that – if you don’t protest the first time you’re falsely accused of friendly fire – then: (a) people think you’re guilty; (b) the real guilty party knows they can do what they like and you’ll get the blame; (c) you start getting the blame for everything no matter how far-fetched; and (d) worst of all, you start to think “I’m as well hung for a sheep as a lamb”, and the accusations start to become self-fulfilling, not least when you’re under attack yourself.
The Steel in Ed Miliband’s Soul
But as apathetic as I might have been to most of that flak, I’ll always remember that Sunday sadly as the day I fell out with Ed Miliband. I’d known Ed for 8 years. I worked with him on tax policy issues as a civil servant, and when I became Head of Communications at the Treasury in 2003, we’d travelled the world together with Gordon.
Where Ed Balls was a Gladstone – intimidatingly bright, powerful and demanding to work for, Ed Miliband was indeed a Disraeli – his catchphrase was ‘You’re a genius’, he’d wear his intelligence behind a self-deprecating veneer, he’d apologise for making you work late and thank you profusely and genuinely for the work you’d done.
When he called me that Sunday, I told him what a joke it was that I was being accused of briefing against him and others. “But where’s it all coming from, Damian?” he said. “They’ve got all these details of the meetings we had; that must have come from you.” “Of course that stuff’s from me”, I said, “that’s just the colour – that’s harmless, but they’re accusing me of doing the lines blaming you and Douglas and Spencer for the whole thing.” “Well where’s all that coming from, Damian?”
His voice and tone reminded me eerily of Hal the computer in the film 2001. “I don’t know, but it’s not from me – I’d never brief against you.” “I don’t believe you, Damian” he said, “I think you’re lying.” It felt like an ice cold razor had been dragged down my spine. “Ed, for God’s sake, don’t say that. I’d never brief against you.” “That’s the trouble, Damian, I don’t believe that’s true. I think you’re lying.” “Stop saying that, Ed. You can’t accuse me of lying. I’m not going to have that.” “I can’t help it, Damian, I think you’re a liar.” “If you keep saying that, you know we’re finished, I’m not having that.” “I don’t care, Damian, I think we are finished.”
The call ended. I wandered round the Holloway Road in a daze, went into The Hercules pub and downed 3 pints in 10 minutes, then walked down to The Emirates and watched Arsenal beat Sunderland 3-2 to go top of the league. And again, buoyed by booze and Arsenal’s late winner, I had the worst possible reaction to my fallout with Ed Miliband – sod him.
Three years later, after Steve Richards’ biography and radio series on Gordon’s premiership appeared and repeated the accusation that I’d been responsible for the anti-Ed and anti-Douglas briefings that day, I was called up by a Labour MP – not someone who’d been prominently involved in the ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ discussions – who said: “I just want to say sorry, you’re getting it in the neck again for the briefings that day, and it was me who did them, and I’m sorry for that.”
By that stage I didn’t care. In some ways, I’d just had a dose of my own Treasury medicine: I’d been Admiral Bynged – a convenient person to blame, and it wasn’t the guilt that mattered, it was the perception that someone close to Gordon (and to Ed Balls) had tried to pin the blame on Ed Miliband and Douglas, allowing them to get some distance from the sinking ship in No10 and some victim status with Labour MPs.
But – with the benefit of perspective – I have to admire the steeliness in Ed Miliband. It wouldn’t have been easy to tell someone who’d worked loyally for him for 8 years that he was finished with them, and do so in such cold-blooded tones. We saw it again in 2010 when he sacked Nick Brown as Chief Whip. That’s not a man who’d struggle with the difficult personnel decisions you face as Prime Minister, and arguably, that’s not a man who – if he rather than Gordon had been leader in 2007 – would have wobbled when the moment of decision came.
You might expect the mood in Downing Street the following week to have been dark, but strangely – almost like a hospital ward – there was a determined cheerfulness amongst the staff, and GB (typically when he blamed himself for a screw-up) was sweetness and light to everyone. It was only over the coming weeks when – with the media in a feeding frenzy, PMQs becoming a weekly humiliation, and a run of terrible ill-fortune or incompetent government depending on your perspective (climaxing in HMRC’s loss of the child benefit discs) – that the gloom really set in.
At that stage, much as the current administration must be feeling, it felt that everything that could go wrong was going wrong, GB had lost all credibility with the media and in Parliament, and it was hard to see what would turn it round. And GB himself was deeply wounded: his hard-won reputation for iron will, decisiveness, competence and strategic genius gone overnight.
But I’d like to think that he learned from the experience, and when he had his version of Kennedy’s ’13 Days’ – with the world facing the complete collapse of the banking system and the descent into economic meltdown and anarchy that would have resulted, and every other world leader not just wobbling but panicking – it was Gordon who knew what they all had to do, and had the iron will and decisiveness to persuade them.
If he had gone for the election in 2007 and been forced to resign afterwards with Labour’s majority reduced, he wouldn’t have been there the following year to steer Britain and the world through that crisis. So who’s to say it wasn’t the right decision after all?
* October 6th previously marked my favourite political anniversary – the day that betting duty was abolished in 2001 and replaced with a gross profits tax on bookmakers – a reform which saved the British high-street bookmaking industry and stopped betting in this country disappearing exclusively online and offshore. I was the lead official in the Treasury’s tax policy team, although the credit for driving through the reforms sits with my then boss, Alex Gibbs. We managed to bring forward implementation by 3 months from January, and I drafted a press notice which – to save the tabloids a job – included the Top 10 bets that punters would be able to have tax-free between October and Christmas as a result of the earlier start-date: Sol Campbell to score for Arsenal on his return to Spurs; Robbie Williams to get the Christmas No1, etc. The Treasury press office loved it and it was all set to go, but when GB was asked to sign off his quote, the old Presbyterian in him was furious: “What are you doing encouraging gambling? This is the Treasury, not bloody Las Vegas!” The original press notice was scrapped and something that was potentially a very popular announcement with punters was reduced to a bland technical note: GB’s moral compass at work!
** Famously, GB had two options before his last Budget in 2007: one to cut the basic rate of income tax by abolishing the 10p rate; the other to cut Inheritance Tax by allowing married couples to combine their tax-free allowance. This was where the starter process that I’ve described before could actually work against good decision-making. The income tax proposal was relatively straightforward, whereas every time we looked at the IHT proposal, we came up with new reasons why it might not work: what about recently-widowed individuals, what about war widows, how far back could you go if you wanted to make it retrospective, and how much more would it cost. We ended up convincing ourselves that there was too much risk of it unravelling on the day, whereas the income tax proposal was an easier sell. It was the wrong call and October 2007 might have turned out very differently if we’d made the right one.
*** I myself was very confident (and frankly a bit excited) about the potential election campaign, having not been involved in one before. One of my most treasured pieces of memorabilia is the ‘treatment’ I wrote for a potential Party Political Broadcast in 2007, which reads as follows (with apologies to The Day Today, which inspired it, and to PR professionals who do this stuff for a living):
“We open with a milkman on his early morning rounds in a wealthy suburban street listening to Classic FM playing ‘I vow to thee my country’. He waves cheerily at a postman walking the other way. The postman starts whistling ‘I vow to thee’.
A Mum takes a parcel from him at her door, and keeps la-la-ing the tune in a lovely melodious voice as she and Dad get the kids ready for school, and climb into the family Range Rover. Dad gets out at the station, humming the tune, and gets on board a gleaming, new train with other commuters.
An orchestra and male voice choir (humming) take up the tune in the background, as we cut to real footage of trains arriving at stations in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, suited commuters pouring off the trains to go to work.
The orchestra and choir soaring now, as we cut in quick time across the bright skylines of Britain’s cities, then to construction sites, university students walking and cycling, a gleaming new classroom in a primary school, a hospital room with a doctor and nurse showing a smiling elderly patient a gleaming piece of new equipment, two police officers walking through a crowded shopping centre, etc.
The orchestra and choir slowing and quietening now as we get to the end of the day: smart young city types laughing in a wine bar; a barmaid pulling a pint of beer in a village pub and laughing with the chaps at the bar; a mum and dad taking excited kids into the new Wembley all lit up in front of them; teenagers dancing and shouting at a concert at the 02.
The orchestra and choir going almost silent, replaced by just a single, vaguely familiar baritone voice humming the tune. Households across the country are going to bed: an elderly woman turns the heat up before getting into bed; the Mum we saw earlier looks in on her sleeping kids; the Nurse we saw earlier checks that the elderly patient is asleep in the now dark hospital.
We cut to an old building with all the lights off apart from one window. We move at worm’s eye level through a familiar black door, then up carpeted stairs, down a long corridor, deep red carpets, with one room lit up at the end, and the faint humming of the closing bars of ‘I vow to thee’ growing louder as we move towards the light.
We pan round the door, a sideways shot of Gordon Brown sat at his desk, his red box in front of him, going through papers and signing documents, humming to himself. He finishes the last bar, looks down at the camera, smiles and says: “Good Night”.
Dissolve to black. Captions come up in turn: “He’s working”, “You’re working”, “Britain’s working”, “Don’t let the Tories ruin it”.”
It might just have worked!
There are seven basic plots in politics.
Just as in Christopher Booker’s analysis of literature and film, I believe there are seven basic stories being played out in the careers of almost all significant politicians, which repeat themselves endlessly, and have done for centuries:
1. Principled or maverick individual succeeds because of their principled or maverick approach; power changes them, leaving their supporters disappointed.
2. Charismatic would-be king is thwarted by ruthless, unworthy opponents; and ends up exiled and frustrated in life.
3. For years, the heir to the throne yearns restlessly for the crown; finally gets it – at some price; but fortune turns against them.
4. Two individuals rise to power together; but eventually destroy one another, either through blind loyalty or the emergence of distrust.
5. A great individual has one fatal flaw or makes one great mistake which undoes them and damages their reputation.
6. A ruthless leader lives and dies by the sword, destroyed by their own pride and paranoia, and often assassinated by their own protégés.
7. A canny foot-soldier rises to the top, using the mind more than the sword, but is never comfortable with power and is replaced by a more natural born leader.
There are three other plots which exist purely in political fiction:
1. The thwarted and exiled would-be king comes back a wiser, stronger person, takes the crown, and rules successfully.
2. A young rogue with bad habits or fatal flaws corrects their habits and flaws, becomes a changed person, and rules successfully.
3. The principled or maverick individual retains their principled or maverick approach even when they obtain power, and rules successfully.
Of course, all these plots – other than the fictional ones – end in failure, and those politicians who manage to navigate a successful end to their careers are so rare that they don’t warrant a ‘plot’ of their own.
But it’s a useful exercise for politicians to look at that list of standard plots, work out which film they’re in and what fate they’re headed for, and try to change the script. For that reason, I believe every politician should be a film and literature buff – able to recognise a narrative arc when they see one, and have a clear sense of how the story will play out.
That brings me to the film that David Cameron and his entourage watched on the eve of the Conservative party conference a year ago today.
Whether it was the watching of the film that inspired the naming of the strategy, or the naming of the strategy that inspired the watching of the film, we know – from Allegra Stratton’s fine column written a couple of weeks later – that senior Tories now refer to their economic and deficit strategy as ‘Hamburger Hill’.
For those who have not seen the film, it’s a realistic if formulaic depiction of one squad’s experience during the American assault on Hill 937 near the Laos border in May 1969, and it’s easy to see why it inspired David Cameron.
From his point of view, the parallels are obvious. The hill is a hugely-challenging target with an entrenched enemy, against which the Americans launch a relentless, full-frontal assault. In the film, the squad – despite heavy casualties – retain their morale and camaraderie, and stick to their mission; they rail against the lily-livered critics back home and the media doubting their ability to get the job done; and at the end of the film, exhausted but triumphant, they bask in their hard-won victory.
The trouble is if the Tories look beyond the fictionalised account, they’d have learned that the real Hill 937 battle is viewed as a tactically inept, strategically pointless disaster, encapsulated in the fact that – unmentioned in the film – the Americans surrendered the hill just days after finally capturing it. The unacceptably high casualties from the battle succeeded in turning American public opinion even more firmly against the war, and led the White House to order an end to similar operations. Not exactly the model for economic policy it seems.
Of course, there is an interesting parallel between Vietnam and the current debate about the Government’s economic and deficit strategy.
Just as in Vietnam, many individuals within government and the media are telling themselves that if the Osborne strategy doesn’t seem to be working in terms of delivering economic growth or bringing the deficit down, it’s not that the strategy is the wrong one, it’s just not being implemented fast enough or on a big enough scale. Thus in Vietnam, successive American administrations carried themselves deeper and deeper into the quagmire, at unimaginable cost to their own forces, to American society, and – most of all – to the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
If David Cameron is indeed taken by Vietnam films, he could do worse on the eve of his conference next weekend than watch The Fog of War, the brilliant series of interviews with former US Defence Secretary Robert Macnamara charting the descent into the Vietnam quagmire, and hearing his regrets about all the missed opportunities to change course. Unlike Hamburger Hill, that film has the virtue of being the truth.
Incidentally, watching Ed Balls’ speech earlier, I was reminded by his ‘Butch Cameron’ line of an important movie parallel in terms of Labour’s economic strategy.
Two years ago, almost every senior voice in the Labour party – with the exception of the trade union bosses – was telling the party they had two choices: they could either back the Tory economic and deficit strategy 100% in an attempt to neutralise the issue; or they could back the speed of the proposed deficit reduction plan, but disagree with some of the specifics about where the cuts and tax rises should fall.
With either option, Labour would have been damned in 2015. If they backed the pace of deficit reduction and the Osborne plan succeeded, then the Coalition would be able to claim they’d achieved their mission and deserved another term in office, regardless of any disputes about how the deficit had been reduced. But if Labour backed the plan and it failed, the public would tar all parties with the blame, again regardless of any nuances over where the cuts had fallen.
Ed Balls introduced the third choice: opposing the pace of deficit reduction and saying the whole strategy would prove counter-productive. If he was wrong, Labour were damned anyway. If he was right, then they’d have the chance of a hearing with the public. He did the only thing that gave Labour a chance.
It reminded me of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the posse has the pair trapped on the edge of a ravine. Their only choices are to ‘give’ and go to prison, or ‘fight’ in which case they’d be killed or starved out.
Butch Cassidy introduces the third choice – jumping off the ravine – the most dangerous of all the options but the only one that gives them a chance.
Obviously there was a bit more economic theory at work when Balls defined Labour’s position on the deficit, but I’d like to think there was a bit of the film buff at work as well. Either way, as long as he and Ed Miliband avoid both Bolivia and Plot 4 in my list, they might just succeed.
8 years ago today in Washington DC, I endured – no other way to describe it – one of the toughest days in my working life. And it had all started so well.
Still a civil servant at that stage, I watched the 2004 Labour party conference in Brighton from my office in the Treasury. Compared to the acrimony of the 2003 conference (‘Best when we are Labour’, etc.), Brighton had been relatively harmonious, and all the speculation was that a deal had secretly been done for TB to stand down for GB before the 2005 election or shortly afterwards.
GB met us at Heathrow ebullient and firing on all cylinders. He’d made huge play in his conference speech of our obligations to the poorest in the world, and was now hyper-active about the need to deliver progress at the G7 summit in Washington. This suited me. He’d spend the flight talking to Shriti Vadera, Jon Cunliffe and his other international development experts about negotiating strategy. I could spend it drinking my way through BA’s wine list and watching films.
Scattered throughout the plane were the various economics editors of the national broadsheets – Larry Elliott from The Guardian, Gary Duncan from The Times, Phil Thornton from The Indie – and up in business class with us were the legendary Alex Brummer from the Daily Mail and the greatest journalist you’ve never heard of, Sumeet Desai, then of Reuters.
We landed in bright sunshine at Dulles, and as usual, I had my two phones out and switched on as we were descending, ready to pick up the latest from London. Not that I was especially obsessed, but I could guarantee Gordon’s first question as we walked off the plane would be: “What’s the news?” If we’d ever been taken hostage by the Taleban in Kabul, rescued by the SAS, and dragged into a helicopter, Gordon’s first question to me when they took the hoods off would have been: “What’s the news?”
I looked at my phones. My inbox was starting to fill up like a Tetris board – 36 messages, 18 voicemail notifications. I went through the texts. Ed Balls: ‘Ring as soon as you land’. Ian Austin: ‘Ring asap’. Trevor Kavanagh: ‘Are you in Washington with GB? A word when you can.’ Phil Webster: ‘Give us a call’. Ian Austin: ‘If there are press on that plane, get them well away from GB.’ Steve Field: ‘Blimey. Carnage.’ Ed Balls: ‘Ensure total discipline’. Ian Austin: ‘Have you not landed yet?’
It’s at these moments that three thoughts go through your head: 1. Oh shit; 2. Why does no-one take the time to send you a text which helpfully and succinctly explains what the hell is going on?; and 3. Oh shit.
As we were taxiing down the runway, I called Ian then Ed. Ian: “No10 had to announce that Blair’s having a heart operation tomorrow and explain why he’s bought a house in Connaught Square, so he’s tried to get on top of it by saying he’ll serve a full third term. It’s all being done as a devastating blow to Brown – kills his chances of becoming PM and so on. Total carnage.” Ed: “You’ve got one job – Gordon and everyone around him needs to be totally disciplined about this. Total discipline.”
The door opened and the business class passengers went down the steps into a shuttle bus. I’d had to break terrible news to GB over the years; that was part of my job. When we worked in No10, I became the official ‘breaker of bad news’ because I was regarded as the best at it. But aside from the death of Robin Cook, this was the hardest thing I ever had to tell him.
Gordon: “What’s in the news?” Me: “Hold on.” Gordon: “What’s wrong? What’s happening?” Me: “I need you to tell you something, but you can’t react. You’re being watched by Alex Brummer.” Gordon (agitated): “What is it?” Me: “You need to relax. Alex is watching to see if you’re angry or upset, so you need to calm down before I tell you.”
When I relayed the news, his head started to sink, but he then put on his famous fixed grin for Alex’s benefit and started talking about where we would watch the weekend’s football matches. When we got to the convoy of cars and mini-buses to take us to the IMF building, GB disappeared into his limousine and I got on with the job of ‘ensuring total discipline’, telling all the officials and advisers with us that both we and Gordon would be under massive media scrutiny for the next 24 hours for evidence of anger or depression, so it was vital that no-one gave them any.
It was already too late. As we later discovered, somewhere, somehow, between the plane landing and GB’s entourage going into the IMF, the brilliant Larry Elliott – not just the best economic journalist in the world but one of the most intrepid newshounds in the British media – had managed to get a corker of a quote out of one of our number: “It’s like an African coup – they waited ‘til he was out of the country”.
Once inside the UK delegation office at the IMF – then occupied by Tom Scholar, currently occupied by Alex Gibbs (the greatest Treasury civil servant of the last 20 years), and soon to be occupied by David Cameron’s official spokesman Steve Field – the mood was pitch black. GB had a series of scheduled meetings with other delegations, but could barely be prised away from Tom’s sofa, where he sat staring out of the window at the street below.
I stood nearby, making my series of calls to the umpteen political journalists who had texted me asking for the reaction from Washington and for details of Gordon’s mood and movements, sounding as bright and relaxed as I could, explaining that he was busy with his meetings, had no problem with Tony’s statement and was fixated on getting increased IMF aid for developing countries, GB occasionally looking darkly at me as if he thought I was chiding him.
That evening, as usual when we were overseas, the Media Monitoring Unit at No10 faxed me through the front pages of the papers, asking with more than their usual sarcasm: “Are you interested in the coverage of the PM’s statement?” As the Guardian splash rolled off the fax machine with its ‘African coup’ headline, my heart sunk and my head raged. Others at home were seeing it at the same time, and my phone started to hum again. Ian: “Have you seen Guardian? Who the hell said that?” Ed: “What happened to discipline?!” Trevor Kavanagh: “Just seen Guardian. An urgent word please.”
The Treasury under GB was almost immune to unplanned leaks and rogue quotes, a remarkable record sustained over 10 years. That was in part due to our policy that unless a quote came from X, Y or Z, then we’d simply deny that it represented the Treasury view, where X was the Head of Communications (successively Peter Curwen, John Kingman, Michael Ellam, me, Paul Kissack and Chris Martin), Y was the Media Special Adviser (successively Charlie Whelan, Ian Austin and me), and Z was Gordon himself or either of the two Eds.
It was also due – and I take full credit/responsibility for this – to my Admiral Byng approach to leaks. If anything did appear in the papers that was not from X, Y or Z, I would instantly name a culprit. I’d try and choose someone who was a decent suspect, but their guilt didn’t really matter – it was the assertion of their guilt that mattered. They would be cut out of meetings, removed from the circulation list for emails, and wherever they walked in the Treasury, people would mutter about their demise. The effect of this was to make the actual guilty party feel guilty as hell, and put the fear of God into everyone else in the Treasury about doing any leaking themselves. As for the poor Admiral Byngs, they’d usually recover after a while, and some of them were probably guilty anyway.
With the ‘African coup’ quote, the chief suspect was Shriti, although she furiously and plausibly denied responsibility, and she was too important to GB to give her the Admiral Byng treatment. So I had to let it slide, and to this day, Larry remains inscrutable on the subject.
That evening, I sat with GB at the hotel bar, and watched the first Presidential debate between John Kerry and George W Bush. In 6 years working for GB, I never saw him so down. Within ten minutes of the debate starting, he was rasping criticism at his friend John Kerry. “Look what Bush is doing – security, security, security. He’s defining the election, and instead of challenging him, Kerry’s going along with it. He’s trying to win on security – he’ll never win on security. Where’s the economy? Where’s jobs? Madness. Madness. He’s just lost the election.”
As each question was asked by the debate moderator, Gordon would thump the bar and deliver a word-perfect response for Kerry to deliver, and then thump the bar again and shake his head as Kerry made his own response. “Rubbish. Total rubbish. You’ve lost, man. You’ve lost.” It was a remarkable thing to watch, GB gripped by anger and frustration, projecting his own feelings onto Kerry, but still the consummate political genius.
Later that night, I tried to cheer GB up. “Look, Blair was forced into making that statement – he didn’t want to make it, and he probably doesn’t believe it – he had to say it or else he’d have to quit before the election. Nothing’s really changed – he’s not going to serve another 5 years.” GB just shook his head.
“I’ve already had seven years. Once you’ve had seven years, the public start getting sick of you. You’ve got seven years when you’ve got a chance to get people on board, but after that, you’re on the down slope. I’ve tried not to be too exposed, but it’s still seven years. The only chance was getting in next year before the election. Tony knows that. Every year that goes by, the public are going to say: ‘Not that guy Brown, we’re tired of him – give us someone new.’”
We talked a while about the ‘seven years’ theory. It was clearly informed by the US Presidential system, but GB went through a series of British politicians and made the same point. He argued that Margaret Thatcher – despite carefully rationing her public appearances (a point made by Peter Bingle in his Friday musing) – was on the slide in public opinion even at the time of the 1987 election, and that Churchill had only bucked the trend by continually re-inventing himself.
I understood GB’s mood and mindset far better after that conversation. I believe he only ever wanted to fight and win one election, serve four years and hand over to the next generation before the following election. He believed 2005 was his one chance to do that, and Tony’s statement had robbed him of that chance. Of course, he robbed himself of his second chance in 2007, but that’s another story.
There was an amusing post-script to that dark day. The next morning, GB had to do his briefing to the UK economics editors in a meeting room in the IMF building. As he prepared to go in, he asked what he should say if anyone asked him about Tony’s heart operation. Sue Nye said that Anji Hunter was due to text her when they knew that the operation had been a success and Tony was recovering, but she’d heard nothing yet. GB was only half-listening, and when he sat down with the journalists, he began his briefing by saying: “I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that Tony Blair’s heart operation has been successful and he’s recovering well, and we all wish him well.”
Sumeet Desai was hovering at the back of the room, and raised his eyebrows at me in time-honoured ‘Can I go and use that?’ fashion. Having only half-heard what Sue said myself, I gave him a nod. He slipped out, and 5 minutes later – as Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson and the world’s press stood outside No10 saying that there was no news yet from No10 or the hospital on the PM’s condition – the ‘breaking news’ flashed up: “Reuters: Brown says Blair operation ‘successful’; PM ‘recovering well’, much to the chagrin of the journalists in Downing Street and the confusion of Tony’s staff given he was still under sedation at the time.
Why does any of this matter today? Well, next Wednesday marks seven years since David Cameron’s ‘speech without notes’ at the 2005 Tory conference, so we will soon get a chance to test the theory again. Cameron obviously hasn’t been PM for all of that time, but he was the most over-exposed opposition leader in history, and has undoubtedly been front line in the public consciousness for 7 years. Indeed, three of the top ‘Family Fortunes’ associations the public has with Cameron (i.e. ‘What comes into your head when you think about David Cameron?’) – huskies, hoodies and chauffeurs – will also see their 7th anniversaries within the next 10 months.
But as Peter Bingle again observed in that Friday musing, the interesting thing is that Tory strategists are currently trying to re-create the ubiquity that the PM enjoyed in his first year as Opposition leader – putting him on Letterman, putting him in every Olympic arena, even – heaven help us – putting him on Twitter.
If Gordon’s seven year theory is right, this is the last thing they should be doing; they should be rationing his public appearances and building up other fresher individuals – especially the exceptional Grant Shapps – as the public face of the Tory party. Otherwise, they risk people switching on the pre-election debates in 2015, looking at Cameron and thinking: “Oh not you again, I can’t stand another 5 years of you.”
That’s if Gordon’s theory is right. We’ll wait and see. But in the meantime, anyone who complains that Ed Miliband isn’t ubiquitous enough should remember that he was in Washington with GB that weekend, he heard the same mantra, and he knows that by the time of the next election, he will already have been 4½ years in the job. So excuse him if he plays the long game when building his public profile. He’s smart is Ed Miliband.