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The ghosts return as Brown fights to escape the Blairite past

At the Labour party conference in Bournemouth, Tony Blair was airbrushed out of the picture. But this week Blair’s ghost has returned to haunt Gordon Brown with a new biography of the ex-PM, sniping from the disaffected and the evidence of Yates of the Yard on cash for honours. The challenge now for Gordon Brown is to lay out an agenda that allows new Labour to move beyond its past.

24 October 2007

3:15 PM

24 October 2007

3:15 PM

At the Labour party conference in Bournemouth, Tony Blair was airbrushed out of the picture. But this week Blair’s ghost has returned to haunt Gordon Brown with a new biography of the ex-PM, sniping from the disaffected and the evidence of Yates of the Yard on cash for honours. The challenge now for Gordon Brown is to lay out an agenda that allows new Labour to move beyond its past.

You could have spent the whole week at Labour’s conference in Bournemouth without realising somebody called Tony Blair had ever existed. His face, his ideas, his legacy had all but vanished from the official and fringe literature. He may have been briefly mentioned in speeches, as a play’s director might ritualistically thank the janitor. But not since Trotsky was airbrushed from the Bolshevik photograph gallery has a political leader been so suddenly and dramatically forgotten. It has been Year Zero for Comrade Brown — aptly satirised as the ‘Age of Change’ in Private Eye — with no hint of there having been a preceding era of any value.

Yet this week, and no less dramatically, the ghost of Tony Blair has returned to the feast like Banquo’s. His biographer, Anthony Seldon, has revealed new and extraordinary details of Blair’s final months in which the then Prime Minister declared himself an ‘abused and bullied wife’. The word at Westminster is that Cherie Blair is not enjoying life after No. 10, and that her memoirs will even blame Mr Brown’s guerrilla campaign for her husband’s heart condition. Blairite ex-ministers are popping up in newspapers with disobliging, anonymous comments — or, in Lord Falconer’s case, on the record calls for Mr Brown to deliver a ‘vision’. And then on Tuesday we had assistant commissioner John Yates in the House of Commons, resurrecting the loans-for-honours horror with some very piquant remarks about how New Labour does business.

For Mr Brown, this is torment from beyond the grave. Isn’t Mr Blair meant to be vanquished, dealt with, safely in exile in some Middle Eastern sinecure? Is this another plot to destabilise him? Would that it were so simple. I gather Mr Blair has been genuinely aghast at suggestions he is behind all this. He has asked his gang to behave itself, and has sent his close ally Tessa Jowell out to keep the peace. But there are limits to what such personal entreaties can achieve. The horrid truth for Mr Blown is that all this is not about a revived personality cult, or even the vengefulness of a faction (as strong as that emotion may be). It is about the ideological fault line which still divides the Labour party.

For some time now, we have been waiting for Gordon Brown’s ‘vision’ — the image of the future so compelling that he claims he had to cancel an early election, the better to explain it to us. Labour MPs are growing impatient. ‘I suspect Gordon is bluffing,’ says one. ‘There is no alternative Labour vision of the future other than the Blair one. His vision seems to involve turning the clock back ten years, to top-down state control. And if he does that, the election is as good as lost.’

Here lies Mr Brown’s problem. He has adopted a disposal strategy for the Blairites (‘divide and rule,’ says one ex-Cabinet member, ‘some of us in government, others obscurity.’) There has even been a purge of Blairite buzzwords and phrases. ‘War on terror’ is out, for instance, and the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit has been ordered to drop the words ‘choice’ or ‘contestability’. But Mr Brown has not been able to vanquish Blairism itself, an election-winning approach to politics which is alive and kicking in the minds of many senior Labour figures.

The Blair–Brown clash was so bitter, because it was, in the end, much more ideological than personal. True, the origins of the rivalry lay in the 1994 Labour leadership contest. But, as the years passed, it became clear that personal bitterness was more than matched by differences of principle. Mr Blair increasingly came to the conclusion that state control and one-size-fits-all policies were hampering Labour’s goals, especially in public service reform. Bureaucracies, he argued, are inherently hostile to such reform, and tend to give the best service to the rich who are best able to complain and work the system. So his market reforms would transfer power or ‘choice’ to the users, and drive standards in schools and hospitals by forcing them to compete for custom. The more radical Blairites argued for ‘co-payment’: encouraging the affluent to chip in for a better service. No, said the Brownites, this is divisive and wasteful. The machine needed to be better-funded and properly run. Too much personal choice, Gordon’s gang argued, would mean ruinous fragmentation. Blair trusted the invisible hand of the market. Brown, despite his occasional protestations to the contrary, always preferred the clunking fist of the state.

It was obvious enough that the old Blairite order was at an end when Alan Johnson, the health secretary, announced that there would be no more ‘permanent revolution’ in the NHS, and when the definition of City Academies was changed to bring them under local authority control. The Brownite way is one of which Bevan would have approved, orders from on high to the rest of us: letters sent to the parents of overweight kids, reminding them of the child’s waist measurements. Parents being asked by the government to read to their children for ten minutes a night. In so far as it’s possible to discern a Brown ‘vision’, it is a montage of such edicts.

For an ex-Prime Minister only four months out of office, Mr Blair is said to be remarkably relaxed. Aged 54, two years younger than his successor, he is focused on the next stage in his career — and, whatever that may be, his prime purpose is to restore his political reputation. ‘This matters to Tony more than anything now, and his work in the Middle East is integral to this,’ says one Cabinet source. ‘He needs to cleanse the stain of Iraq. He also watched Thatcher torment Major, and saw how that damaged her in the eyes of posterity. So he knows how badly he could be damaged if he is seen to be destabilising Gordon.’

Some of his former strategists also believe that (as one explained to me) the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ as far as Blairite reform is concerned and that it has passed the point of no return. Once NHS users are given a choice of public or private hospitals by their GP, they will not allow that choice to be withdrawn. ‘Gordon may have to rebadge the Blairite agenda, perhaps under his title of “personalisation”,’ says one. ‘But it’s out there now. It’s popular. It is too late to go back on it.’

Yet for all his intellectual self-confidence, and suspicion that the visionless Mr Brown will come round to his way of thinking in the end, Mr Blair is uncertain about his party’s future and does not enjoy the coded and not-so-coded trashing of his tenure in No. 10 by his successor. ‘Tony is a human being,’ says the Cabinet source. ‘He genuinely believes Gordon has big shortcomings and could lose the election. However relaxed he claims to be, it must hurt to watch Gordon dissing you — and your premiership — day in, day out.’ And while he has an incentive to keep his qualms to himself — self-preservation — the same is not true for all his former lieutenants.

One former No. 10 staffer says Mr Blair ‘is telling them, as clearly as he can, not to brief against Gordon — and that the only people who benefit are the Tories’. But how can he control them? Ms Jowell can only do so much. And while Mr Blair has his foreign trips and international celebrity to sustain him, what’s there for those left beh
ind? Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, cannot practice law any more, and recently wrote an article warning Mr Brown not to give the impression of ‘drift, not leadership’. Alan Milburn maintains the silence of an unexploded bomb. John Reid is talking about setting up his own thinktank.

Many other Blairites are too scarred by battle to be reconciled to the Brown era, or to stay very quiet for very long. Peter Mandelson in Brussels has not exhausted his capacity for barbed criticism. We have yet to hear a squeak from Stephen Byers — on the record, at least. Calming them down will be hard — not least because they believe that, after the usual honey­moon, their predictions about Mr Brown have proved completely accurate. Worse, they know that Mr Blair, for all his demands for stage-managed loyalty, privately agrees with them. The first cheque for an advance on prime ministerial memoirs can do wonders to calm the nerves. The same sedative is not available to the orphaned Blair gang.

One man Mr Blair does not have any control over is Dr Seldon. The second instalment of his book is due to run in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, and it is laden with destructive potential. The book is widely acknowledged to be brilliantly sourced, and loaded with the type of disclosures many thought would not reach the public domain until Mr Blair’s autobiography was published — and perhaps not even then. A biography from the Master of Wellington College cannot be dismissed as political sour grapes, or exaggerated journalese. And Dr Seldon has plenty to say not just about Mr Brown, but about those around him.

Ed Balls, Mr Brown’s most trusted lieutenant and now schools secretary, is quoted as saying Mr Blair was a ‘moron’ and that Mr Brown himself ‘bottled it’ by refusing to mount a putsch after last year’s May elections. Ed Miliband, then a backbench MP, is quoted as demanding to know, quite brazenly, what the Prime Minister would achieve from staying longer. A portrait emerges of a lethal team of backroom assassins — who are now, rather awkwardly, members of the Cabinet. It is precisely the opposite of the consensual, big-tent-pitching image Mr Brown has been at pains to nurture.

All this has been exacerbated by Mr Brown’s inaction. After cancelling the election and burgling Tory ideas in his pre-Budget report, he has seemed to lose the awesome momentum with which he entered No. 10. Normally a Prime Minister could be expected to regain the initiative in the Queen’s Speech, but Mr Brown published his new legislative agenda in June saying it would give parliament more time to scrutinise his plans. So if he slips in any new initiatives when Her Majesty opens parliament next month, it will look like panic — and springing a surprise on parliament after promising not to. The No. 10 policy laboratory spent so much time on Mr Brown’s speech, and then ideas for the (unneeded) Labour manifesto, that it has had little time to plan the year ahead. The project at present is to try to put flesh on Mr Brown’s buzzword of ‘personalisation’. Those caring for the infirm, runs one idea, will be given control over their budget. If £20,000 of NHS money is being devoted to looking after your elderly mother, you would be shown the breakdown and have the chance to spend it differently. It is a Brownite third way: greater power, but without a market mechanism.

While interesting in as far as it goes, all this falls rather short of the promised ‘vision’ for which the political world is waiting. ‘If you speak about vision,’ says one Labour source, ‘you need to have one.’ To many ex-Blairites, the focus on obesity and talk of new A-levels in 2013 is not a rival vision, but evidence of its absence. They are not pining for a Blairite Restoration, but fear the old order has been destroyed with nothing to replace it — leaving a vacuum into which the party may topple.

Mr Brown is still in telephone contact with Mr Blair. ‘They’re getting along, very much so,’ says one minister. ‘Even after all these years, there is still lots of fraternal affection.’ But Mr Blair is not the Prime Minister’s foe now. Nor, for the time being, is David Cameron his priority. His problem is the glum faces which fill the rows behind him at Prime Minister’s Question Time. His enemy now is not a person or a faction, but the inability of New Labour to escape its past.

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