When John Reid was asked if he’d stand for Labour party leader, he would always give the same sort of reply. ‘I have a life outside politics,’ he told me at the last Labour conference. ‘I play the guitar, I play piano. I have a house in France. I could walk away from all this tomorrow, and my life would not collapse. Now you may believe me, or you may not believe me: I don’t give a …’.
At the time, I didn’t believe him. Not for a second. Mr Reid seemed to be the classic political animal. Ministerial red boxes from his many government posts are lined up in his parliamentary office like hunting trophies. He would call friends on a Saturday night and chat away; they’d find out later he was sitting in the Home Office with a team working next door. He seemed to be less a man in chains than a pig in muck. Yet last weekend, he did indeed decide to walk away from it all.
It was potent evidence of a reality which is only now dawning in Westminster: the Blair years are finally over. The curtain is falling, and Mr Reid is one of many familiar faces who will leave the stage. Perhaps he decided that he could not work with the Chancellor. Perhaps Mr Brown decided that he did not want a rival power base in his new Cabinet. Either way, there will be more departures to come, a brutal Darwinian clear-out. The cast which has dominated British politics for the last decade is finally dispersing.
The next few weeks will decide the shape of British politics for the next few years. Mr Brown was conspicuously absent from the scene — extraordinarily so — in the days after Labour’s terrible electoral performance in Scotland, Wales and the English local authorities. Now, however, he must begin what he will present as a campaign for the leadership. In truth, it will be no such thing. The Chancellor is hoping that Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, his two putative challengers from Labour’s left, will be unable to agree which of them is to stand in the next few days. If neither secures the requisite 45 signatures, the Chancellor will achieve his dubious ambition to be crowned rather than elected in a serious contest — thus becoming the first prime minister since Eden to enter No. 10 without the semblance of a competition.
So we are now in a curious seven-week interregnum while Mr Blair works out his notice, stripped of any meaningful power. There is talk of Mr Brown summoning hundreds of Labour MPs on to College Green and standing with them as they cheer uproariously for the cameras. But until the end of next month, he will spend most of his time in the Treasury watching as Labour contents itself with an over-contested race for its deputy leadership.
It is a sad reflection of the state of talent in the Labour party that, while one person is likely to stand to be the new Tony Blair, half a dozen want to be the new John Prescott. The race for Labour’s deputy leadership will probably begin in earnest on Monday — and the outcome will matter to Mr Brown not one jot. His de facto deputy will be the City minister, Ed Balls, his long-serving aide, intellectual alter ego and the author of many of his best ideas.
That said, the deputy leadership race will serve as a useful barometer of Labour’s survival instinct. There is a row of Cabinet candidates: Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Alan Johnson and Peter Hain. An ex-Cabinet minister: Harriet Harman. And one backbencher: Jon Cruddas, the Dagenham MP who has devoted his career to politics beyond the Westminster village. If the British National Party made no significant advances at the last week’s election, Labour has his campaigning to thank.
A plausible argument is advanced by Mr Cruddas’s supporters. Labour is becoming disconnected from its base and is in danger of becoming a ‘virtual party’ rather than a national movement. For example, last Thursday’s elections left Labour with no representation in 88 English local authorities. A political map of the wards shows not so much as a pinprick of red in most of the Southwest. So, to outsiders, the deputy leadership race will be a useful yardstick: if Labour chooses Mr Cruddas, it is prepared to confront this problem.
Rory Bremner recently observed that there are two people in British public life whose views on domestic politics are a mystery: the Queen and the Chancellor. Now that he faces no serious opponent himself, the deputy leadership race is Mr Brown’s best chance to end his pseudo-regal silence. When nominations close next Thursday, about four or five names are likely to go through. Eight hustings will follow, the first to be held on 20 May (it was moved from the 19th when it was pointed out that this clashed with the FA cup final — and party managers conceded that no one would turn up).
Assuming he addresses these events, it will be hard for Mr Brown to remain as Delphic as he has been, or to plead purdah (as his aides so often have). The Conservatives are convinced that he has a reserve of clever and politically powerful ideas, and will swap his statistical autobabble for a new style which will set the tone for his leadership. Interestingly, Mr Brown’s allies are urging caution — on policy, at least. He has been in power for ten years, they say: don’t expect a sudden revolution.
Which leaves us with old-fashioned machine politics, who’s up, who’s down, and personal positioning. Warned not to expect immediate fireworks to match the granting of independence to the Bank of England, Westminster is instead fixated upon Mr Brown’s coming reshuffle. Mr Reid rightly said that his departure has given Mr Brown ‘maximum flexibility’ so that every great office of state will soon be vacant. Margaret Beckett unwittingly ended what little chance she had of survival at the Foreign Office after releasing an 11-page summary of her achievements last month. It was a compendium of gimmicks and clichés, reinforcing how foreign policy has stalled under her tenure.
The Foreign Office believes that Jack Straw is campaigning to return there, payback for his role fronting Mr Brown’s leadership campaign (if it can really be called a campaign). David Miliband is being tipped for either the Home Office or the Foreign Office. No one with any ambition wants to be Mr Brown’s Chancellor — knowing that all the key spending decisions have been taken until April 2011. The Chancellor is likely to dismantle the power base he created — as Mr Blair tried and failed to do with the Treasury after the last election. The last thing Prime Minister Brown needs is his own overmighty Chancellor. If Gordon is the new Tony, there will be no new Gordon.
Mr Brown will by now have decided who to take with him to 10 Downing Street and what type of spin operation he will have. ‘The spin will be “no spin”,’ as one supporter puts it. But who will sell the human, sports-loving-man-of-the-people side to Mr Brown, as Charlie Whelan once did so well? Kevin Maguire, the respected Daily Mirror columnist, would be perfect for the job but is growing tired of ruling himself out. The top job will stay with Damian McBride — or ‘Damian McPoison’ as Peter Mandelson christened him.
This is already causing some controversy, as Mr McBride is known for being a little too enthusiastic in his pursuit of enemies, real or perceived. While tales of Alastair Campbell’s bullying were common coin in Fleet Street, tales of Mr McBride’s work tend to be less widely circulated. But one was made public on Tuesday night at the leaving party for Anthony Browne, who has just stepped down as chief political correspondent of the Times to run the Policy Exchang
e think tank. It is a useful glimpse of the Chancellor’s tactics.
Mr Browne had asked for a Treasury comment on his paper’s scoop that the Chancellor had been warned in advance by officials about the damage his 1997 pensions fund raid would do. The reply came by text message from Mr McBride, and instantly presupposed a vendetta on Mr Browne’s part: ‘I suppose your, er, “new” Tory employers will be delighted so I can see why you personally are trying to turn it into something. Disgusting, really, for someone being paid by a so-called paper of record.’
A second text message followed. ‘I just wish for once you’d try to get past your cynical, Tory, halfwit Harold Lloyd schtick to try and be a genuine journalist. It’s presumably cos of your inability to do so that you’re off to earn a crust at some Tory think tank instead. Pathetic.’ As the bespectacled Mr Browne read all this out during his leaving speech there were intakes of breath, even among the journalist present. The era of hardball and spin is to outlive Mr Blair.
While charm may not be one of Mr McBride’s strong points, few dispute that he serves the Chancellor well. While he fires abuse at journalists he regards as dispensable, he is courteous and helpful to those with whom he has a relationship. You are in or out: nothing in between. There is no Big Tent with this spin doctor. ‘They may call him McPoison, but he is still a very effective operator,’ says one Westminster insider. And this is why he is likely to be at the centre of Mr Brown’s communications machine — though perhaps banned from electronic communication.
The larger challenge for Mr Brown will be one of personal presentation. He has stopped pretending to like pop music, but stories of his other-worldliness still fill newspaper columns. When he was recently sent to meet Jermaine Jackson, brother of Michael Jackson, he instead turned to the singer’s wife and said how much he enjoys her (non-existent) work. Worse, he was recently photographed at an official visit with his trouser leg tucked inside his sock. His trademark syncopated smile and other tics — permissible in a Chancellor, the nation’s trusted book-keeper — will seem much odder in a Prime Minister attempting to speak to and embody modern Britain.
None of these is a hanging offence. But when Alastair Campbell concocted the story about John Major tucking his shirt into his underpants, he knew the political damage that can be inflicted by making a politician a laughing stock. It is no accident that Mr Blair called William Hague’s Tory party ‘weird, weird, weird’. Once, Blairite MPs would laugh just as hard about the Chancellor’s gaucheness. Now, their own political survival — in government and, in about six dozen cases, as MPs — depends on Mr Brown raising his game. They fear that he may become an object of national derision. But there is nothing much they can do about that now.
On the Friday after the elections, Labour held a party in Soho House in London for serving and former aides. It was effectively a wake for the Blair years — and spirits dampened by the loss of Scotland and 500 English seats in the elections were restored by the free bar. Blairites drank and reminisced with former Brown aides: there was a palpable sense of amnesty. The man once seen as the Chancellor’s nemesis, Alastair Campbell, made a speech. ‘Now, we will all get behind Gordon Brown and help him win the next election,’ he said. There was quiet, then a cheer. Although many in Labour may hate to admit it, they are all Brownites now.