Nothing ranks higher in the demonology of the Labour movement than ‘the Tory press’. It printed the forged Zinoviev Letter, which won the 1924 election for the Tories with the false but subtle claim that Labour’s softness towards the Soviet Union was encouraging communists to plot a revolution in Britain. It so smeared Neil Kinnock, the hopeless John Major won the 1992 election. For almost a century, the Labour tradition held that if its leaders did not win or if left-wing arguments did not convince, it was not because the leaders were fallible or arguments weak but because the Tory press had convinced voters to ignore them.
Although Labour people believed the Tory press capable of anything, they would never have believed that the agents of a Labour Prime Minister would use it to destroy the reputation of a Labour minister. Last week, far too many MPs for Gordon Brown’s comfort thought that was exactly what his supporters had done to Ivan Lewis.
The junior minister is a political ally of Alan Johnson, the affable health secretary, who as one of the few politicians in Westminster who can speak to the English working class is also a potential candidate for Brown’s job. In March Lewis wrote that Labour needed ‘national renewal and a new generation of political leadership’. You did not need to be a code-breaker to know he meant that Brown was yesterday’s man. In August, he argued that the government should tax the rich not the middle class, hardly a radical argument for a Labour politician, but one Brown did not want to hear.
Lewis ought to have known that Whitehall had a secret which could hurt him. In 2006, he had a mid-life crisis. He left his wife of 16 years and mother of his two children and fixed his attention on Susie Mason, a young civil servant in his office. As far as we know the dozens of text messages he sent her were not nasty, but Lewis certainly pestered her. She protested, and Whitehall moved her to another job. Her complaint lay in the cabinet office files.
Last Sunday the News of the World and Mail on Sunday had it all over their front pages. A Mafia hit, muttered Labour MPs. The Brownites have taken out Lewis and warned others about the consequences of speaking freely. I was as interested in the minority who protested that the case against Brown had not been proven, and wondered if a gossipy civil servant had sold the story instead. Although they defended him, not one said: ‘Come off it, Nick, Brown may be rough but he’d never allow his aides to stitch-up a colleague in the Tory tabloids.’
They knew Brown’s form too well. On the same day the Lewis story appeared, The Observer carried a fierce attack on David Miliband, the equally affable Foreign Secretary. It came from Derek Simpson, joint leader of the Unite union. As everyone at the TUC conference was pointing out, Charlie Whelan is Brown’s man in the union movement, and runs Unite’s political department.
First Johnson and then Miliband. As the Don went for all his enemies at once, the Sunday papers looked like the closing scenes of The Godfather
A few days earlier, I had listened open-mouthed as a Brownite delivered a jeering, contemptuous assault on Alistair Darling for the mistake of speaking incautiously to the Guardian. It wasn’t only the tone that riled me, but the knowledge that Darling was not Brown’s enemy but a friend who was uncomplainingly cleaning up the mess his master had left at the Treasury. ‘Loyalty is what the bosses screw you with,’ trade unionists used to say, and Darling’s trusting nature made him a soft target for the Brownites.
Last month, an article in the Telegraph (another Tory paper) claimed Miliband would appoint Alan Milburn as his Chancellor if he replaced Brown. The story wasn’t true, Miliband categorically denied it, but it was subtle. Milburn’s name is poison, in part because of the battering Brown’s aides gave him. No challenger would win the votes of the unions and constituency parties if they thought he wanted to bring the ‘uber-Blairite’ back to power.
I don’t want to be too prissy. All Prime Ministers need their thugs, and there is much that is noble in Brown’s efforts since 1997 to reduce poverty and rebuild the schools and hospitals of Britain. The trouble with the Brown administration is that increasingly its thuggish face is the only face on show. When he became Prime Minister, he promised to reach across the political spectrum. Like Sarkozy, Obama and McCain, he said he would build a government of all the talents. As the economic crisis has deepened, he has returned to his old sectarianism. Downing Street is now a bunker filled with his gang of trusties: men with few discernible qualities beyond a cultish devotion to their leader.
They think they can carry on as they did in the days when they went for Alan Milburn, and do not understand how the world has changed. One of the ugliest aspects of politics is the sycophancy which surrounds successful leaders. When his colleagues thought Brown had a strong grip on the economy, many admired his strong-arm tactics. The one complemented the other and showed that Brown was a leader in control. His failure has shifted the ground rules. Now the economy is falling apart his colleagues are likely to be far less indulgent.
‘A bully is less frightening when he’s weak,’ as one senior figure explained to me. Many are now grasping that no law says Gordon Brown is the only Labour politician allowed to use the sneak attack; that nothing in the Labour party’s constitution prevents his targets responding in kind.
As rebels challenge his leadership this weekend, Brown should make his case for continuing in power honourably and fight his critics in the open. If he does not, he will find that the tactics of his made men will destroy his premiership.