Anyone who has ever had breakfast, lunch, dinner or any other meeting with Gordon Brown will know that he gives very little away. Some ministers are known for their bluntness and occasional indiscretions; others may sometimes drink a glass or two more wine than they should, and say things they should perhaps not have. The Iron Chancellor falls into neither category. His complete self-control makes him both formidable and rather unlovable.
As has already been reported in the press, on Monday 18 November Mr Brown had breakfast at the Guardian’s offices in Farringdon Road. It is not uncommon for the paper to host such get-togethers with ministers. By the standards of some of his colleagues, the Chancellor was not on this occasion particularly indiscreet. By his own lights, he was wildly frank. In criticising the idea of top-up fees for universities as ‘ridiculous and elitist’, he openly put himself at odds with their champion, Tony Blair, though he did not name the Prime Minister. The mask dropped only fractionally and momentarily, but Mr Brown had offered a glimpse of his differences with his rival, which are normally only alluded to by his lieutenants.
Most of those present must have realised that they had a story on their hands. According to one report, Ed Balls, the Chancellor’s chief adviser, and incidentally the one with the greater grasp of economic detail, prevailed on the paper to keep it off the front page. He certainly asked that it should be kept over until Wednesday 20 November because Mr Brown was doing his stuff on the Queen’s speech on the afternoon of the 19th. (Although the breakfast was off the record, it is accepted that such meetings can produce stories, so long as names, dates and direct quotes are not used.) On the Wednesday the Guardian ran a piece by Patrick Wintour, its chief political correspondent, on page two, which declared that Mr Brown was ‘voicing strong doubts about top-up fees, the preferred option of Downing Street’. Though the article largely restricted itself to top-up fees, it suggested that Mr Brown was ‘at odds with some senior Downing Street advisers’ and that there was ‘a growing ideological split’ in the Cabinet. In the same issue the columnist Jonathan Freedland went considerably further. ‘At last it’s in the open. After eight years of dark whispers, coded messages and plain guesswork, the legendary Blair-Brown split is finally emerging into the daylight.’
Mr Freedland comes rather well out of this tale. The conventions did not permit him to cite chapter and verse, so his revelation of a widening Blair-Brown rift necessarily reads a little strangely. But he had done what good journalists have to do, which is to seize on a small hint and interpret it. Mr Wintour might possibly have made more of the personal differences with Mr Blair. But the really stupid thing was to put his story on page two, which is always something of a graveyard slot. Even as it was written it was an absolute corker. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Guardian executives were trying to protect the Chancellor. The story certainly made many fewer waves tucked away on page two than it would have done had it been the splash.
I have been asking myself whether in the heyday of Thatcherism the Daily Telegraph might have obliged Nigel Lawson or the Lady herself in a similar situation. Of course it might have done. Newspapers always consider their future relations with powerful ministers. The Guardian will reason to itself that it got its story, and ran Mr Freedland’s lively column, without irritating the Chancellor or Ed Balls. Both men will cheerfully come back for more croissants in Farringdon Road. But actually the paper played down rare evidence of worsening Blair-Brown relations. It is not as a result of its own piece, or even Mr Freedland’s column, that we are now so fully in the picture. Someone – presumably a disgruntled Guardian hack who believed that his paper had mishandled the story – leaked it to the Mail on Sunday.
None of this would matter terribly if we did not have an often comatose press which seems increasingly loth to take on the main figures in the government. In fact, the Guardian and its sister paper, the Observer, have a pretty good record in writing about New Labour scandals and cock-ups. The same cannot be said of the Times, Daily Express, Sun (for most of the time), the Daily Mirror (at any rate until recently) and the Independent (though not the Independent on Sunday). The BBC, apart from a few independent enclaves, is a loyal servant of New Labour.
Last Sunday the Mail on Sunday alleged that a convicted fraudster by the name of Peter Foster had bought two flats in Bristol on behalf of the Blairs at a discounted price. The BBC did not mention the matter in any of its dozens of bulletins. The newspapers I have mentioned either underplayed or completely ignored it. The Press Association, which supplies papers with hundreds of stories every day, many of them of the utmost insignificance, could not bring itself to breathe a single word about it.
Peter Foster has served time, and his reported claim to have acted for the Blairs, and to have secured discounts of an estimated £70,000 on the two properties, should be treated cautiously. But Downing Street, though denying that Mr Foster has ever been the Blairs’ financial adviser, has not specifically disavowed his role in the purchase of the flats. It has also come close to admitting that they have acquired them. We know that Mr Foster has met Cherie Blair at least once; that his partner is Carole Caplin, a former topless model, who is pregnant with his child; that this same Carole Caplin is a friend of Cherie’s, as well as her style and fitness adviser, and has been on holiday with her on two occasions; that the Blairs have recently given a birthday party for Carole at Chequers, for which, of course, they met every cost out of their own pockets. Throw in Carole’s mother, Sylvia, a psychic who counsels Cherie, as well as being her friend, and you have a collection of very odd facts which might add up to something damning. The only uncertainty – admittedly the killer issue – is Peter Foster’s alleged role in buying the flats at a discount. Did he or didn’t he? If he didn’t, why hasn’t Downing Street come up with a specific, foolproof denial?
You would have thought that there was enough here for a robust press to be getting its teeth into, but no. Downing Street has gone ballistic, muttering about the Press Complaints Commission and invasion of privacy. According to the Guardian, ‘Government sources advised journalists to steer away from the story, saying that it lacked credibility.’ That sounds faintly sinister to me, and tends to increase my suspicions that something may have been going on which the Blairs do not want the public to know about. But we won’t get an answer from the BBC or most of the press, which evidently regards the Blairs’ financial dealings, as well as their distinctly odd friendships, as being absolutely none of our business.