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.