Don't blame the spin-doctor - blame his boss, Mr Brown
Wednesday 30 December 1998
So justice must be seen to be done and wild Charlie's ill-kempt head must roll to avenge the crime committed against Mr Mandelson. Clearly, the Prime Minister's briefers had prepared the way to the scaffold.
Hardened lobby correspondents, who could go 12 rounds with a boa constrictor after a long lunch, came over faint at the memory of Charlie's rough and ready techniques. "Enemies were `bollocked' to their face in profane language... Journalists who transgressed were telephoned at home to be told that their stories were `crap'," wrote one columnist. The horror, the horror. One pictured sweat-drenched hacks whimpering in fear because someone called them at home and swore at them.
True, when it comes to briefing against his enemies Mr Whelan has enough previous convictions to keep a whole army of probation officers occupied. He is all the usual suspects rolled into one. But it is a little too easy to pin the blame for this ragged state of affairs solely on one old lag who is, in the Westmister grand scheme of things, a minor player .
Mr Whelan is nothing more and nothing less than the most public symbol of the undigested tension between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Were relations between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor not so fraught, he would not have been free to ply his mischievous trade in the first place. Don't blame the monkey - look to the organ grinder.
If, as Alastair Campbell, John Prescott, Jack Cunningham, Uncle Tom Cobley and all suggest, Mr Whelan briefed the journalist Paul Routledge against Peter Mandelson, then he did so because he knew that this was what his master wanted. Indeed, he was behaving exactly as he had done the last time he served up to Mr Routledge touching details of Mr Brown's unhappiness at the manner in which Mr Blair had snatched the leadership from him.
Mr Whelan is daft but not stupid. Detonating another powerful charge at a target as well protected as Peter Mandelson was a high-risk enterprise and not one which he would have undertaken single-handedly.
The real reason for the discord is and always has been the unclarified nature of the relationship between Mr Brown and Mr Blair. Like mediaeval knights, they have allowed their minions to go to war against one another while preserving a serene countenance and giving generously to the Church. The whole business is fetid with pretence. Nothing could be more amusing - or soul-destroying, depending on your view - than Mr Mandelson and Mr Brown fencing each other now with showy niceness. As connoisseurs of feuds will tell you, this is the most potent weapon by far. When I heard that Mr Brown had called Mr Mandelson five times to tell him how sorry he was for his trouble and that Mr Mandelson had been very grateful, I prayed for both their souls.
It is often said that Mr Blair and Mr Brown have a close working relationship and that rumours of a rift are therefore unfounded. But the real story of the two men is far more tortuous, complex and destructive than outright liking or not liking.
They are both architects of New Labour, but their views differ profoundly of why a reformed party is necessary and how its evolution will proceed. The Brownites believe in the Labour Party, as a cultural entity and a continuum with the past. They celebrate the memory of the late John Smith, who was a decent and kindly man, but no political mould-breaker. Ask a disciple of Mr Brown's whether Smith would have won the 1997 election if he had lived and they will reply without hesitation that he would have done so and made an excellent Prime Minister. They would have preferred to see a traditional product of the Labour party in Number 10 than the confident outsider there today.
Natural-born Blairites feel differently. Their fierce loyalty to Tony stems from a visceral belief that neither Mr Smith nor Mr Brown could have constructed a political force with such over-whelming appeal to the middle-classes and driven the Conservative party to the margins of relevance. This theory that Mr Blair is somehow exceptional irks Mr Brown - the more so since the Chancellor has the more classical political intellect.
Yet it is Mr Blair who has the keener instinct for power and more innate understanding of what the country's hopes and fears are. I do not know whether the Chancellor will ever come to terms with this uncomfortable fact of life. A lot of his operations - the cultivation of Mr Robinson, the deployment of Mr Robinson's wealth and the creation of closely-knit court around the Treasury - suggest that he cannot resist squirreling away favours and political debts for the day when he can bid once again to lead the Labour Party.
Harbouring this dream is not wrong in itself. Allowing it to contaminate his dealings with close colleagues is. Mr Brown does not respect - oreven recognise - the distinction.
The problem for those who wish to loosen Mr Brown's clenched grip on old resentments is that most of the Labour Party, in the country and in Parliament, and the vast majority of the Cabinet consider him to be a decent man, driven to the edge of mania by the disappointment he suffered in the leadership race. There is no appetite for a show-down between Mr Blair and Mr Brown which would end in the humiliation - or even the removal - of the Chancellor. The Prime Minister knows that it would undermine his appeal and authority if they are seen to be too hard on Gordon.
For all the appearance of being a ruthless, lean fighting force, New Labour is an emotionally super-charged and rather vulnerable group of people, unable to stop scratching at old scars. It has its own sentimentality, as acute as anything the old socialists with their banners and slogans had to offer. Mr Blair stands aloof of this, but knows that it matters and that the illusion of warmth and friendship must be maintained at the top of the party, however viciously reality bites.
So Charlie Whelan has become the lightening conductor, diverting the rage and resentment that should more properly fall on Mr Brown. The reason the spin-doctor will probably have to go is not because he was the author of the leak. He may well not have been. Nor is because he exceeded his master's brief. It is because he fulfiled it too well. The sacrifice of Charlie is intended to end the tribal massacres of the last week. When he is gone, the casus belli will fester on.
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