Blair & Brown: A war on two fronts

In the second of our exclusive extracts from his new book, former Downing Street spin doctor Lance Price reveals the guerrilla fighting that raged between the Blair and Brown camps
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When I joined the Downing Street press office in June 1998, it felt as if I was being employed to work for a coalition government of two parties, each with its own structures, loyalties and agendas: the Tony Blair party and the Gordon Brown party.

They worked together as best they could because they had a mutual interest in doing so. But they knew there was likely to come a time when they would have to go their separate ways, and a disproportionate amount of time and energy was spent preparing the ground for that eventuality.

For the Brown party, much of that preparation was being done by Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls. Their counterpart on the Blair side was always more Peter Mandelson than Alastair Campbell.

From Downing Street's point of view, the situation had nothing but downsides. Blair already had the job, and nothing would have pleased him more than to be allowed to get on with it while his Cabinet ministers, including Brown, got on with theirs. He had nothing to gain from a decade of sniping with the Treasury. He had everything to gain from dissuading Brown from taking such a well-known bruiser as Charlie Whelan, a former trade-union official, with him into government in the first place. But Brown refused to sack Whelan.

Within a year of the 1997 election Blair would be forced to recognise that the talents of Whelan and Balls were being employed to promote not the interests of the government as a whole but the personal political ambitions of Brown – who believed he would make a better prime minister and intended to prove it as soon as he possibly could. A crisis point was reached in January 1998, with the publication of a book by the Independent on Sunday correspondent Paul Routledge, entitled Gordon Brown: The Biography. Routledge made little effort to disguise the fact that he was firmly in the Chancellor's camp, and his book was seen in the Blair camp as a vehicle to promote Brown's leadership ambitions.

A row over this reached its peak when the Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley wrote that, "Someone who has an extremely good claim to know the mind of the Prime Minister" felt it was time for Brown to get a grip on his "psychological flaws".

Not surprisingly, Brown took the remark badly and its publication was seen as evidence that Downing Street was willing to brief viciously against the Chancellor. Rawnsley has not yet said who gave him the quotation, although he has ruled out Mandelson. Most subsequent accounts have tended to finger Campbell, although he too has denied it.

In January 2007 I appeared on an obscure internet-television channel hosted by the Conservative blogger Iain Dale. In the course of a lengthy interview I said "someone very close to the Chancellor" had named another culprit for the remark quoted by Rawnsley. I had handed Dale a publicity coup, and at Prime Minister's Questions the following day Blair was asked about my comments.

He confirmed that he had not called his Chancellor "psychologically flawed". My source had been Whelan, which suggests Brown too believed Blair to have been personally responsible. Researching this book I learned that another person, this time somebody very close to Blair in 1998, also claimed the words were the Prime Minister's. Either way, Brown thought he had good grounds for resentment, and the words took on a disproportionate significance in the battle of wills that was to last until Blair was finally forced to relinquish power almost a decade later.

Brown was a co-architect of New Labour and had few if any serious policy differences with Blair. But by insisting on the right to run his own wholly independent operation for briefing the press he, too, contributed to the narrative that the Government was obsessed with spin and counter-spin. Downing Street had never before faced such an autonomous and combative rival source of news and "guidance" for journalists, and no previous prime minister would have tolerated it.

Where John Major had constantly to look over his shoulder to see what his predecessor was up to, for Blair it was the man who was determined to succeed him who caused him endless trouble. After the Iraq war, 'politics as normal' – as if politics is ever normal – had already resumed and in New Labour terms that meant familiar tensions over issues like the euro and the pace of reform in the public services and, hanging over all of it, Brown's ambitions to supplant the Prime Minister.

At the party conference in 2003 the Chancellor had made his most audacious bid for the leadership in a speech remembered for his reworking of a Blair line into a new refrain. "We are best when we are boldest," the Prime Minister had declared a year earlier. "Best when we are Labour," said Brown. The briefing wars had never really gone away; there had just been more important things to worry about.

Brown had largely kept his head down during the Iraq controversy. It was a familiar tactic. Without saying or doing anything much publicly, he was able to signal to those disenchanted with Blair in the parliamentary party and more widely that he understood their concerns.

The signals were broadcast via private conversations with MPs, trade unionists and trusted journalists. The ripple effect created the impression that a Brown government would be very different – more 'Labour', whatever that meant – but without ever explaining how.

In 2004 Brown and his aides were still directing a guerrilla war from within the Treasury bunker. Relations between the two men were as bad as they had ever been, but as the 2005 election approached it was in the interests of both of them to pretend the opposite. For months Brown had been sulking over the way Alan Milburn's arrival [to run Labour's campaign] had effectively sidelined not just him but his closest allies. At the last possible moment a peace of sorts was re-established, to give the media and the public an impression of harmony, even if the underlying reality remained discordant.

Labour emerged battered and bruised, but with a majority of 66 seats. Any previous Labour leader would have seen that as a very comfortable margin, but Blair felt demoralised" and "rejected". Number 10 was convinced that Brown immediately broke the fragile truce by briefing the press that the results were a setback for the party and its leader.

Blair had told Brown he would not support any alternative candidate for the leadership, and this time he appeared to be keeping his promise. Whatever doubts he may have had about the Chancellor's suitability as a replacement, he had no intention of making them public.

The Treasury's use of the media to draw attention to its differences with Number 10 was as infuriating as ever, but hardly new. Brown was suspected of being behind a leak of Britain's negotiating strategy while Blair was negotiating with other EU leaders over the European Union's budget. "We believed it was the Treasury that leaked it to the press. The detail clearly meant it had come from a very close inside source," said one official. Number 10 regarded it as a betrayal.

Like Lloyd George, Brown was suspected of supping with the devil, entering into an alliance with his party's traditional enemies in the press to undermine the Prime Minister.

'Cash for honours' was a long, debilitating affair. Downing Street was shackled by a lengthy police investigation and a succession of damaging leaks to the media. No proof of wrongdoing was ever established. Nor could Downing Street prove that Brown had a role in exacerbating the affair. At best the evidence was circumstantial. Never had Blair felt so powerless in response to a story that seemed to go on and on. Relations with Brown were as bad as they had ever been. The two men were still talking, but the conversations were hardly productive.

More than any prime minister in history, Blair allowed the media to influence the pace and direction of his government. He thus stayed closer to public opinion (to the extent that the popular press truly reflected it), but he sacrificed much of the opportunity he'd been handed to lead public opinion in a new direction. Significantly, however, the choice was his. The 'real' Tony Blair was more of a small-'c' conservative than he was willing to admit even to himself. He was capable of using the fear of how the media might react as a cover for his own caution or uncertainty. As a result, he looked like a supplicant at the court of the newspaper proprietors more often than he really was.

With the possible exception of Harold Wilson, no previous prime minister would have sanctioned the kind of media-management techniques that Blair regarded as necessary. He didn't know about everything that was being done in his name; no prime minister ever does. But none of us who worked for him felt in any way inhibited by the sense that he might disapprove of what we were up to. Only when the political damage being done by spin became too great did Blair insist that things would have to change.

But by the time Downing Street signalled that it wanted to play straight with the media, most journalists doubted it would know how to if it tried. Every attempt to draw a line under the past, every declaration of mea culpa, every new 'media strategy' failed. Trust is like virginity. Once lost, there is no getting it back.

Iraq, Campbell and the final fall of PR power

Iraq was a war that could not be spun. No communications strategy could sell the argument that Britain was giving unqualified support to America because it always had or in order to retain the greatest influence behind the scenes.

The argument that war was right because Tony Blair believed it was would never be sufficient either. The only alternative was the threat posed to world peace by Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. As the foreign secretary had pointed out, this case was "thin". It was going to have to be made a lot more substantial.

While Blair used the influence so precious to him to persuade a reluctant George W Bush to exhaust the diplomatic options through the United Nations, Alastair Campbell took up the task that had already begun in Washington: aligning the facts and the policy. In September 2002, Downing Street published its dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence services had been put under considerable pressure to come up with convincing evidence to go in it. The events of that autumn put everybody in Downing Street under huge stress, whether or not it was compounded by the knowledge that they were stretching the truth to breaking point. After the publication of a second dossier [dubbed the "dodgy dossier"], a communications blunder had done disastrous damage to Blair's efforts to persuade the public of his sincerity. It seems clear that Blair did believe Saddam was capable of launching chemical and biological weapons, although perhaps not in 45 minutes.

For every negative headline about Campbell there had been hundreds more that, thanks to his efforts, told a very different story. When Campbell resigned after the Iraq war, the high point in the power of the Downing Street press secretary was passed. No holder of that post before or since has come close to the influence he wielded and it is unlikely a future appointee would wish to match it or be allowed to. The strength of the Blair-Campbell relationship was unique.

At its most effective it enhanced and extended the power and influence of the prime minister. When Campbell's determination to fight for every story ran away with him, he inadvertently damaged the man he sacrificed so much to defend. Campbell helped define the Blair premiership for good and ill. He won Labour new friends in the media but, as Blair admitted, he made many enemies, too.

Where Power Lies, Prime Ministers v The Media by Lance Price is published by Simon & Schuster