In the last days of Labour, Her Majesty’s government conducts itself thus. Amid the screams and whoops of the conference bar, a member of the Prime Minister’s court whispers secrets to David Grossman of the BBC. Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, will go in the next reshuffle, he confides. Geoff Hoon is out too, and, oh, by the way, the Prime Minister doesn’t know what to do about Alistair Darling, even though he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Britain is in the middle of its greatest financial crisis since the Thirties. Should he stay, should he go? It’s all terribly difficult.
A grateful Grossman broadcast his scoop. Hoon was sitting next to Jeremy Paxman in the Newsnight studio and bore the revelation that he was about to lose his job with stoic composure. Downing Street could not manage similar grace under pressure. Brown’s staff went wild. They issued denials, then half-confirmed the report until, finally, at 3.15am, the Prime Minister’s press spokesman, Damian McBride, appeared in the bar of Manchester’s Midland Hotel to admit it was all true. He gave Ruth Kelly precisely two minutes warning that he would be announcing the end of her career.
It says much about the levels of hatred at the top of the government that every minister I spoke to believed Kelly was the victim of a Brown dirty trick. Yet their theory that he was trying to stop her delivering a stinging resignation statement made no sense. The Prime Minister had made a good speech to the conference. Leaking the news of Kelly’s resignation stole the headlines that would have been his.
I find it more plausible to believe that everyone involved had been hitting the bottle in the conference hotels, with the exception of the diligent Grossman, who remained a credit to the BBC throughout. Drink, once the curse of the labouring classes, is now the curse of the Labour government.
I don’t believe you can understand the ferocity of the attacks from Gordon Brown’s allies unless you appreciate its centrality. As I mentioned a fortnight ago, so far this autumn we have had jeering denunciations of the Chancellor for doing nothing more than telling the public the truth about the depth of our economic troubles and a minor sexual secret about a junior health minister exaggerated and leaked to the compliant tabloids.
Alistair Darling was Mr Brown’s oldest friend in politics. (I doubt if he is now.) The junior minister’s crime was to suggest ever so timidly that Labour governments should tax the rich rather than the middle class. The retribution was out of all proportion to the offence. But booze magnifies outrage and concentrates venom.
I have no right to play the puritan and no wish to either. If I see a Brown supporter at the bar ordering a beer, that’s because I’m alongside him ordering another one. I also accept that teetotalism can lose its attractions when your leader’s ‘light touch regulation’ of financial capitalism has resulted in banks and building societies crashing all around you. In current market conditions, the wagon can wait.
Nevertheless, I kept meeting people in Manchester who did not share my broadmindedness. A columnist for the Mail on Sunday described how she walked out of a dinner her paper had organised for one of Brown’s aides. His descriptions of how he would crush Brown’s opponents repelled her. Later, I was interviewing Charles Clarke, an enemy of Brown’s, when he had to take an urgent call. It turned out that a ‘senior Labour source’ had told his local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, that moves were afoot to replace him as the Labour candidate for his Norwich seat.
It wasn’t true that members of his constituency party wanted ‘to punish him for undermining us all with his repeated calls for Brown to quit’, but I could see why a ‘senior Labour source’ would want to find a journalist who would plant that thought in their minds.
‘Nixonian’ has entered the political lexicon because it describes a ruthless, paranoid style that can overcome all politicians when their sense of proportion goes. The most chilling account of Nixon in action came from Chuck Colson, one of his aides, who remembered the President’s finger circling a wine glass slowly during a meeting in the run-up to Watergate.
‘One day, we’ll get them,’ Nixon told him. ‘We’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist – right, Chuck, right? Get them on the floor and step on them, crush them, show no mercy.’
The madness of Watergate for Richard Nixon was that he did not need to ‘get’ his enemies. The Democrats were weak and scattered and his re-election in 1972 was guaranteed. Brown, by contrast, is facing a rebellion that has a chance of success. Clarke and David Miliband are out to destroy him and I can see the appeal of cutting them off at the knees. Despite the contrast, Nixonian tactics remain as disastrous a response now as they were then.
Politics has been changed beyond recognition since the Seventies by the rise of women. Brown is facing the first revolt in Labour history which is dominated by women MPs on the backbenches and women columnists in the liberal press. The reasons for their disaffection are various, but the Brown’s macho style is high among them.
He doesn’t understand the shifting times and seems to think he is in a barroom brawl. If he can deliver a killer blow to his opponents, he will win. But the movement against him is not primarily composed of Clarke and other old-fashioned street fighters. The opponents he needs to worry about are more often than not passive-aggressive spectators sitting on side tables and watching his behaviour with increasing abhorrence. The danger for Brown is not that Labour MPs will knock him down, but that they will follow Ruth Kelly and slip out of the door, one by one, until he is left punching the air in an empty room, exhausted and alone.