Matthew d’Ancona says that, by sticking with Brown, Labour has opted for a mad collective delusion. The party is still in thrall to the trio who invented New Labour and cannot think beyond the Blair-Brown era — an incapacity for which it will pay a terrible price
In Westminster this week, I have felt like the boy in the movie The Sixth Sense. You remember the character and his famous line. ‘I see dead people,’ he tells his therapist, Bruce Willis, ‘walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.’ How often does the boy see these scary, deluded beings? ‘All the time. They’re everywhere.’
And they are, you know. Everywhere. In Parliament Square, Portcullis House, the coffee shops around SW1: Labour MPs who think they are still alive, and that they will live to fight another day after the disasters of the past fortnight. Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister, he has formed a new Cabinet — just — and the Parliamentary Labour Party did not rise up on Monday night to defenestrate their leader. On they limp, these shambling, morally broken MPs, muttering to themselves that it could be worse, that catastrophe has been averted, that the moment of maximum danger is behind them. How deceived can a political tribe be? The expenses scandal shed unforgiving light upon a parliament of spivs. Now we have a parliament of zombies.
That PLP meeting was spun by Brown’s allies as a triumph. The new Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw — a close ally of David Miliband — declared that the Prime Minister ‘gave the speech of a lifetime’. And — as if that were not glorious enough — we learn that nobody clapped when Charles Clarke demanded that Gordon step down.
How impressive is that? A PLP meeting where only a third of the MPs called upon to speak actually ask their boss to resign. Now that’s what I call authority. When Tony Lloyd, chairman of the parliamentary party, told the BBC that ‘Gordon Brown is the prime minister, he will lead the Labour party into the next general election’ and added, ‘I can state that as a clear fact,’ I was reminded of the shambolic moment when Jim Mortimer, the Labour party secretary, said days before the 1983 election that ‘the unanimous view of the campaign committee is that Michael Foot is the leader’. Except, of course, that Foot got 27.6 per cent of the vote — not 15.7 per cent, as Gordon did in the European election.
Sometimes the only strength a party leader has is his weakness. In 1995, John Major resigned and forced a leadership contest in which he defeated John Redwood. This was presented by Major’s allies as a glorious victory, much as Brown’s speech on Monday was spun as a political tour de force. In fact, 111 of the 329 Tory MPs who turned out did not vote for the incumbent Conservative prime minister — that is, more than a third of Major’s parliamentary colleagues declined to back him in his hour of need. In truth, it was a cruel snapshot of power draining calamitously from Number 10. Yet Major had called his party’s bluff, just as Brown, in his own way, did this week. Both men dared their respective tribes to come up with a better candidate. Both led their parties to the edge of the abyss and tormented them with the prospect of electoral obliteration. For all its pieties, Brown’s message was the same as Major’s 14 years ago. Have a go if you think you’re hard enough — but nobody gets out of here alive.
In their capacity for collective delusion, politicians sometimes resemble a wacky sect of mediaeval millenarians or people who believe in homeopathy. The difference is that neither millenarians or people who buy ‘complementary medicine’ products at Boots are presently holding the entire country hostage. Having come perilously close to dumping Brown — even closer than they did last year — Labour MPs have now decided to pretend to us, to each other, and above all to themselves that this was a bad idea all along, that Gordon is going to change, that there is no alternative candidate for the leadership and that Brown’s departure would precipitate an even deeper crisis. No, they nod sagely: best stick with Gordon and his top team. That’s the sensible thing to do.
As collective delusions go, this is surely one for the record books. Let us not forget the French mediaeval nuns who thought they were all cats and started miaowing uncontrollably; or the bonkers panic that followed Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. My personal favourite is the notorious Nigerian Genitalia Vanishing Epidemic of 1990, in which huge numbers of men inexplicably came to believe that their genitals had been removed or had shrunk to invisibility. But these precedents are small beer compared to the Labour party’s truly crazy new ‘groupthink’. Gordon is the man for the job, the people’s choice, the man of the hour — so let’s stick with him.
Unlike the miaowing nuns or the genitally challenged Nigerians, however, most Labour MPs know, deep down, that they are signing up to a load of nonsense. There is, in the end, a difference between African balls and Ed Balls. It does not take much to wring a confession out of Mr Brown’s colleagues. ‘Look,’ says one tetchy Cabinet minister, ‘we know the score. We know what’s coming. But what would you have us do?’
The answer to that is so blindingly obvious that one wonders how the minister — a politician of great experience, charm and cunning — could ask the question with a straight face. How bad does it have to get before Labour dumps its leader? Wiped out in the local elections, smashed down to less than 16 per cent in the European vote, beaten by the Tories in Wales, shamed by the defection of the working class to the BNP and the election of two fascist MEPs: what is left on the checklist of ignominy? Oh, yes: a Prime Minister not strong enough to choose his own Chancellor. A government made to look ridiculous by a string of resignations and then even more ridiculous by the craven pseudo-loyalty of its surviving members, bought off, intimidated, or simply paralysed by indecision.
When the history of the past fortnight is written, James Purnell will be able to hold his head up high and know that he acted according to his conscience. Not so Alan Johnson and David Miliband, who, as I have written elsewhere, have become practitioners of ‘behind-the-sofa government’. On Tuesday’s Today programme, the Foreign Secretary declared that ‘my generation in the Labour party will not throw away the privilege of government’. But the truth is that his generation already has.
The quid pro quo for such toe-curling displays of supposed unity has been a fresh round of promises by the Prime Minister to change. ‘Like everyone else,’ he told the PLP on Monday, ‘I have my strengths and weaknesses. I am going to play to my strengths and address my weaknesses... No doubt I have much to learn about a collective way of leading the party and the government.’ No doubt. But how seriously can we take such expressions of contrition and pledges of atonement? It is 26 years since Brown was elected an MP, 22 since he became a senior frontbencher, 12 since he joined the Cabinet and (almost) two since he entered Number 10. How likely is that a such a veteran leopard will change his spots?
And we have heard it all before. In 2007, as he prepared to succeed Tony Blair, Gordon declared that he had ‘listened and learned’. There would be no more Brownite intimidation, no more factionalism, less spin and more collegiality. At his campaign launch in May of that year he said: ‘I have learned... that the best way to meet people’s priorities is to involve and engage pe ople. For me this starts with governing in a different way... I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy... For me the weeks of this campaign are a chance to discuss new ideas, but also to listen to your concerns. A chance to show how we will meet your aspirations — but also, as we listen, to learn what needs to change. I will listen and I will learn.’ And so on.
Maybe he meant it when he said it. But that promise to ‘govern in a different way’ didn’t stop him trying to exempt MPs’ expenses from freedom of information legislation. For all the talk of ‘listening and learning’, his style of leadership remained ruthlessly centralised, his gang of assassins as brutal as ever in their methods: indeed, the McBride email affair showed quite how brutal the PM’s closest advisers could be. I hear persistent rumours that Mr McBride is back in touch with his former boss. Can it really be true that the Mad Dog has slipped into Downing Street on the quiet? Somebody should ask the PM in the Commons when he last spoke to or saw the man Peter Mandelson used to call ‘McPoison’.
Ah, Lord Mandelson. Who would have thought it? It seems only yesterday that he was berating me at a dinner party for not doing enough to support David Cameron against Gordon Brown. I recall, too, a very agreeable lunch à deux at the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels in 2006 when he told me that he doubted he would return to government because the ‘Gordonistas’ would never allow it. Now, three years on, he has not only returned to government but practically runs it. And he need not worry about the ‘Gordonistas’ — not even Ed Balls — since Gordon himself scarcely has a cup of tea these days without first asking Peter’s opinion.
Do not forget, either, Mandelson’s mesmeric influence over the younger generation of Blairites. In an interview with the Times last week, he said both that he himself ‘had leadership ambitions’ for Mr Purnell but — chillingly — ‘he’s written himself out’. Imagine, if you will, the silken conversations Lord Mandelson must have had last week with his rebellious protégé and, no doubt, with Mr Miliband, too. One can almost hear him whisper the word ‘disappointing’, the frisson of menace down the line as he discussed the price of mutiny.
In the same Times interview, the new First Secretary of State said of his relationship with Blair and Brown that ‘we were a triangular friendship. At that time [in 1994] the hand of history was placed on Tony’s shoulder, not Gordon’s... I had a difficult relationship with Tony. I was his best friend and his chief ally, but that was the problem because it excited jealousies. Of course, one of the sources of the difficulty was the tensions between the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor. All that’s gone. I’ve reinvented myself.’
What a remarkable way of looking at the government of the country over the last 12 years: through the prism of a triangle of friendship, in its many permutations and combinations, a Jules et Jim for Westminster. And the more you think about it, the closer you get to the heart of the matter. Because these three men — Tony, Gordon and Peter — are now threatening to destroy the very party they once saved. Their grip upon Labour’s collective imagination and behaviour is undiminished. Even in retirement, Blair is everywhere in the party’s deliberations, its dreams and its fears. None of them can let go. They still dominate the show, even as the show enters its last agonising act. In a sense, Blair, Brown and Mandelson have become Labour’s bed-blockers, unwilling to move on, to allow the Miliband-Purnell generation to take its turn at the helm. And the Labour movement is co-dependent in this: the tribe cannot truly conceive what life would be like without these three chieftains, this fissile triumvirate of ferociously strong personalities. It cannot escape this triple-headed shadow. It is frightened of the future.
Watch them, these shattered, withered MPs, slouching through Westminster, slumped together like Eliot’s ‘hollow men’, their ‘dried voices, when/ We whisper together.../ quiet and meaningless/ As wind in dry grass/ Or rats’ feet over broken glass/ In our dry cellar.’ They are finished, but still they stumble on; knowing that nothing has been resolved; knowing that their date with oblivion has not been cancelled, but merely postponed.