Fourth Estate £14.99
Whatever it Takes, By Steve Richards
Yet this tribute to the ex-PM ends up condemning him
Sunday 26 September 2010
Finally, I thought, the version from Gordon Brown's point of view. Steve Richards' book will complete the picture of the long feud between Tony Blair and his successor. After Alastair Campbell's diaries, Peter Mandelson's The Third Man and Blair's own A Journey, this book will provide some balance.
But no. Richards, precisely because he is sympathetic to Brown, manages to damn him more effectively than Campbell, Mandelson or Blair ever could. With each account of the New Labour years, Brown's conduct has seemed more reprehensible. With this account, it becomes utterly unforgivable.
Richards describes Brown's response to Blair's seizure of the Labour leadership in 1994 as "self-absorbed and immature". As a result, he blames Brown for dividing the Labour high command between "Brownites" and "Blairites", categories that had simply not existed before. There were ideological differences, of course, but Brown's character drove many of his natural supporters into the "Blairite" camp. Richards cites Peter Hyman, Blair's speechwriter, as an example. His politics were closer to Brown's – but "Blair's decency and Brown's appalling rudeness made him a Blairite". Richards holds Brown "wholly responsible for the scheming, conspiratorial, paranoid, self-pitying culture that sometimes pervaded his court".
In discussions on holiday in the summer of 2001, just after the Labour Party had secured a historic full second term, "Brown had a single theme: How to get rid of Tony." This was long before Blair had supposedly "betrayed" the 10-year deal supposedly agreed at Granita restaurant in Islington in 1994.
It was not as if Brown's war of intimidation was justified by his record as Prime Minister once his ambition was finally fulfilled, making the worst of a bad job by continuing to alienate colleagues. Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman and Jack Straw were all tempted to join plotters against him. Richards concludes: "His leadership is partly a lesson in the importance of good manners and civil behaviour."
Nor were Brown's policies any more successful than Blair's. Richards is not only sympathetic to Brown the man, but to his supposedly more "rooted" social-democratic values, which he contrasts unfavourably with Blair's "defensive" appeasement of Conservative England. Yet again and again his subtle and thoughtful narrative contradicts the author's sympathies, as Brown is revealed as a cautious politician with no feel for public opinion, constantly fearful of upsetting the Daily Mail. He was terrified of nationalising Northern Rock, stubbornly stuck by the abolition of the 10p tax rate which hit some of the lowest paid in order to cut the basic rate of income tax, and dropped anything remotely "left wing" like a hot brick the moment he thought he might have to defend something difficult. Richards does not see it, but Blair was not only politer and braver than Brown, but by virtue of his instinct for public opinion, was more successful in advancing the social-democratic cause.
This is a well-written book that clips along at a decent pace, full of astute observations, such as that the comical coup by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt this January actually came closest to succeeding; and peppered with telling vignettes, such as that "on more than one occasion Sarah [Brown] was reduced to tears following an exchange with Cherie".
Yet in the end it is terribly damaging to the reputation of its main subject, and to those of the acolytes who hitched their wagons to his defective star, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband.
The title of the book is taken from Brown's one rather good speech at Labour conference in Manchester in September 2008, just after the American mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were nationalised by George Bush and Lehman Brothers went bust: "When people ask what we will do to sort out the financial system, what we will do to ensure there is responsibility and not irresponsibility I tell you in three words: whatever it takes."
It is a good motif for Brown's entire career. But Richards, despite his love of a good paradox, never quite arrives at the obvious conclusion from his own account: that if Brown ever had any principles, he was quite prepared to abandon them at a moment's notice if he thought that was what it took.
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