Naming the likely winners and losers in a Gordon Brown government has become a favourite parlour game among the political class. Enthusiastic supporters of Tony Blair’s agenda are routinely tipped for a long spell in political Siberia. Anyone with a Scottish accent or an aptitude for statistics is tipped for the top. Brownite MPs have found themselves being asked what the future holds — as if they were keepers of a great secret. The blunt truth is that everyone is in the dark. Or almost everyone, anyway.
For all his talk in his recent interview with Andrew Marr of being ‘inclusive’ and forming a ‘government of all the talents’, the Chancellor is running an operation so tight that even MPs who have proved unquestionably loyal to him are being kept out of the loop. While there is undoubtedly a Brown agenda for Britain — a blueprint that will affect every one of us if, as expected, he succeeds Mr Blair — it is one that is known to a tiny group of people. The contrast between rhetoric and reality could not be more stark.
That such a group exists and is jealous of its power was disclosed almost by accident to The Spectator when we received an unsolicited and furious email from a senior official complaining about a quote from a Brownite source which appeared in the magazine. We could not have spoken to a real Brownite, the official said, because only eight of them exist. His words speak best for themselves.
The number of people who like to categorise themselves as part of the Brownite clan is indeed large and growing. But the group of people who can speak with any authority for the so-called ‘Brown camp’ (i.e., those who have authoritative knowledge of Gordon Brown’s personal thoughts, political strategy and policy ideas) is very small. It consists of Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Ian Austin, Spencer Livermore, Sue Nye, Michael Ellam, Chris Martin and Damian McBride.
It was an extraordinary declaration, made by someone whom we will describe only as a person with an exceedingly good claim to know the mind of the Chancellor. While the original New Labour project was developed by a coalition of like-minded MPs, most of whom had served either Neil Kinnock or John Smith in a senior capacity, the next chapter in its history will be written by the Chancellor and a magic circle of his former or serving aides. Mr Blair made much of his ‘Big Tent’. Mr Brown huddles under a tiny military bivouac with his most trusted lieutenants.
As the ‘Octet’ may soon become the most influential group in British politics, what C.S. Lewis would call the ‘Inner Ring’ of the Brown government, its members deserve a little more attention. Even inside the Westminster village, most of them are relatively obscure figures. Yet together they have developed the plan for Britain that Mr Brown hopes to implement as PM. The ten-year blueprint he keeps alluding to, the ‘Britishness’ with which he is fixated and the idea of citizenship he describes as ‘the new individualism’ are all themes being knocked into shape by this team of eight minds. They matter more, and have greater influence over our collective future as a nation, than the official Blair Cabinet: probably more than the Brown Cabinet. Every PM has a gang, but the Octet is something of a different order.
Of the eight, only one is even reasonably well-known: Ed Balls, for years the Chancellor’s chief economic adviser, would be called ‘Brown’s brain’ were his boss not so formidably cerebral himself. It is often forgotten how much at sea Mr Brown was in his opening months as shadow Chancellor, and how dramatically this changed when he hired his young adviser, a former rising star at the Financial Times who brought with him a new vocabulary, an engaging manner and a box of economic tricks. No major Treasury initiative has been passed since 1997 without Mr Balls’s co-authorship.
Now 39, he was elected last year to represent Normanton, which conveniently borders his wife Yvette Cooper’s Yorkshire seat. He is a more accomplished interviewee than his boss, in that he answers questions directly, and is consequently the closest thing the Octet has to a public spokesman. His official job, economic secretary to the Treasury, bears no relation to his true status. Financiers and economists have already learnt to treat Mr Balls’s words as government writ. This convention will become even more entrenched should Mr Brown become prime minister.
Four years ago Damian McBride was a career civil servant working in the VAT office. Now aged 31, he occupies the spin role once held by Charlie Whelan and is known by Peter Mandelson as ‘Damian McPoison’ — which, from the prince of the black arts himself, is a kind of accolade. He assumed special adviser status last year, releasing him from the obligation of neutrality. He now feeds the media, ensuring a favourable hearing for his boss and a good dose of mischief for his enemies.
Cheery and affable, Mr McBride is well liked among the political journalists, to whom he gives an excellent service. His audacity would make even Alastair Campbell blanch, leading his many enemies in No. 10 Downing Street (or ‘the bunker’ as he calls it) to predict that he will one day fall casualty to his own methods. But so far his record is one of outstanding — if risky — success. If Mr Brown had not resolved to abolish the Campbell role at No. 10, it would unquestionably be McBride’s when the time comes. He would still be very influential indeed under Prime Minister Brown.
Before last year’s election, Mr McBride’s spin job was done by Ian Austin, who is now an MP for his native Dudley. He rose through the ranks of local government to replace Mr Whelan in 1999 — and while he is nowhere near as flamboyant as Mr Whelan, he embodies the dependability which the Chancellor values so highly. He holds no government position, but works alongside Mr McBride in various spin missions, and in recent months has started liaising with MPs offering their services for the forthcoming leadership campaign. Senior Blairites are furious that Mr Austin seems to have escaped almost all blame for the circulation of letters from Labour MPs that eventually forced the Prime Minister to announce he would be gone in a year. ‘It was that bloody Ian Austin,’ says one Cabinet minister. ‘He’s the real assassin.’ Yet — typical of the Octet — it was another supporter of the Chancellor, Tom Watson, and two Blairites, Sîon Simon and Chris Bryant, who took the fall.
The third former Treasury staffer to be elected last summer, alongside Mr Balls and Mr Austin, is Ed Miliband. He is the younger brother of the more famous David, the Environment Secretary, and is strikingly similar in appearance and temperament. His inclusion in the Octet is something of a surprise, as he has recently been seen to be a little more distant from Mr Brown than he once was — and indeed he was one of the young MPs recently asked by Mr Blair to come up with new ideas for the centre-Left. He is doing precisely this — but for the other team. Of the Octet, six brief to the media with the Chancellor’s blessing. Mr Miliband is one of them. His rise up the ministerial tree is assured. But he is already more powerful than a Cabinet minister.
Sue Nye never talks to the press, one of the many qualities which allowed her to stay above Labour factionalism. She has been in the party since working as a typist in No. 10 under the Callaghan government, where she met her husband Gavyn Davies, the former BBC chairman. She acts unpaid as Mr Brown’s gatekeeper,
and it is her job to ensure he meets the right people and is not rude to the wrong ones. She is his matchmaker personally as well as politically, having introduced him to his wife. Lack of a social diary (and skills) sank his leadership chances in 1994, but Ms Nye has enough charm and nous for both of them.
Once Spencer Livermore was known only — if at all — for being the lowest-paid special adviser in Whitehall. Now, aged just 30, he ranks among the most powerful, his influence matched only by his awesome anonymity. He joined the Treasury from the Labour party’s research unit; the convention is that special advisers are paid whatever they earned in their last job, which, in Mr Livermore’s case, was next to nothing. But when he returned to run the party’s rebuttal unit during the 2001 general election campaign, he had made up in clout what he lacked in salary. ‘Even then, he was seen as Gordon’s man, who would do whatever Gordon said,’ says one former colleague.
His firmly left-wing politics makes him one of the few Brown Octet members with a clear position on the political spectrum — the others are pragmatic creatures, more interested in practicality and power than in ideology. Mr Livermore is licensed to brief the press, but has decided not to do so.
It is striking to see two civil servants included in the Brown Octet. Normally a cultural chasm separates government staff from politically appointed special advisers, as they have different agendas. But Mr McBride’s move shows how small the difference has become at the Treasury. Mr Brown inspires fierce loyalty among his officials, and in return he has included Michael Ellam and Chris Martin in his private politburo, which includes not a single Cabinet minister.
Mr Ellam, 37, director of policy and planning, has long been a Treasury high-flier, brilliant and drily amusing. He served as private secretary to Ken Clarke where, according to one then colleague, ‘he fancied himself as a speechwriter but he was more a numbers man’. He has served several roles for Mr Brown, yet has always sidestepped the sectarian battles which are Mr McBride’s speciality. Adept at presentation, economics and the machinery of government, he is seen as too valuable to leave out of special plans the Chancellor is hatching. He has inherited Mr Balls’s beautiful Treasury office.
Every so often Mr Brown appoints a promising young civil servant to lead the spending review process, setting the budgets of each department. It’s a bloody task and Chris Martin acquitted himself with distinction two years ago. Aged just 32, he was made head of communications at the Treasury in April. The next spending review is likely to double up as Mr Brown’s vision for the next ten years, and Mr Martin is likely to have a crucial role in presenting what will in effect be a leadership manifesto.
What separates the Brown team from counterpart groups in other Whitehall departments is how well they get along and how close they are. They work hard together and, when the rare occasion for play arises, drink together (Mr McBride was once spotted falling asleep face down in his korma at a Kennington curry house after one post-Budget celebration). One former colleague told me how, when she quit, it was like leaving a family. Their morale is high, their work ethic is Stakhanovite, their number tiny and their output phenomenal.
It is little wonder that the Chancellor has kept this team together for the completion of his personal manifesto. At last year’s Labour party conference, Mr Austin and Mr Miliband — by then new MPs with no links to the Treasury — were still carrying around documents for the Chancellor. It was a strange sight, but indicative of the fact that the Brown Octet sticks together no matter what official roles its members hold. In this, it is comparable to a tiny Masonry or the most ultra-selective dining club; the difference is that its deliberations will decide, and are already deciding, the future of the country.
Eight years ago a lobbyist named Derek Draper boasted to an undercover reporter that there were ‘17 people who count’ in the government ‘and to say I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century’. At the time this was deeply embarrassing for Mr Blair, taken as proof that New Labour was not a party but a clique. Luckily, the claim was utterly deniable — the musings of a jumped-up spiv like Mr Draper, came the official response, were of no consequence. But the Treasury cannot deny the contents of the email sent to The Spectator.
It is a situation which Americans, or any voters allowed to elect their political leader directly, would find incredible. In this country, meanwhile, we can only guess about the policies of our probable next government. Diplomats, defence chiefs and civil servants are reduced to groping in the dark. At the last general election the entire country was allowed to scrutinise and vote on the policies of the official opposition. It was a false choice: the real alternative government has an agenda known to just eight people.
What Labour MPs will notice in the list of names are its omissions. There are several MPs whose political reputation depends on their status as well-placed Brownites. But unless their names are on the list they cannot, in the words of our impeccable source, have ‘authoritative knowledge of Gordon Brown’s personal thoughts, political strategy and policy ideas’. They are as ignorant about the coming policies as the rest of Parliament, the party and the country.
The Brown Octet does not, for instance, include Nick Brown, for so long the Chancellor’s parliamentary rabble-rouser. There is no Geoffrey Robinson, whose Park Lane penthouse was once Mr Brown’s unofficial club-room. There is no Douglas Alexander, his longstanding disciple, no Des Browne, the redoubtable Defence Secretary — no face familiar to the public.
This is what’s different about the Brown revolution. It will not be a Labour movement, or even a parliamentary movement, but the work of a backroom operation run by a tiny group of blood brothers. At Labour’s conference in Manchester there will be much talk of debate, ‘inclusiveness’, open government, trust. Meanwhile the finishing touches are being put to the most secretive, Masonic and tight-knit administration in postwar history: get ready for a government in which Cabinet truly has been replaced by cabal.