Clare Short: How Tony used me to offer Gordon a deal

In this first extract from her new book, Clare Short reveals how the Prime Minister took her aside during a trip to Africa and asked her to pass on a message to the Chancellor
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In February 2002 Tony Blair made his first real visit to Africa, to demonstrate his commitment to the continent. I was invited to accompany him on a visit which was to take in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone. We travelled in the first-class section of a British Airways plane, which was funded by a troop of political journalists who travelled in the rear.

Travelling with such a large group of journalists meant that everything had to be orchestrated and there was very little chance to stop and talk informally and learn as we went. Every single activity was pre-scripted and planned. An official from No 10 had undertaken the journey in advance so that there would be no hitches and all the correct clothing was prepared for each part of the journey. The rest of us carried on all day in the clothes we started off in, but when, for example, we visited cocoa growers in a village in Ghana and a photo opportunity was provided, the Prime Minister and Alastair Campbell had changed from suits into casual clothing and then changed back again.

The Prime Minister is, of course, enormously good at presentation. He always looks good and smart and appropriately clothed. But travelling with him reveals how much effort goes into this. As we approached landing, his staff gathered around. He donned make-up and hairspray. His jacket was put on and brushed, Lady Morgan [director of government relations] scrutinised the outcome and then stooped down to remove a little mud from the heel of his shoe. The journalists had to leave the plane first. We must wait, and then the Prime Minister exits so that the pictures will come out as planned. Probably this kind of behaviour is necessary in a modern political leader, but it is the enemy of spontaneity, and such pressure generates politicians with the characteristics of actors rather than political thinkers.

I also noticed, as Tony engaged in Africa, how he has to talk as if he knows everything. He was new to Africa; he appointed Liz Lloyd as his special adviser on Africa because she had worked for him for years, but she had no background on Africa. There are constant demands for briefing but little open-minded discussion. I think it is a form of insecurity that Tony Blair always has to talk and behave as though he knows more than anyone else on any subject and is therefore very poor at drawing on the knowledge and experience of those who know more.

It was on this trip that Tony asked me to eat with him on the plane, and initiated an interesting conversation. He was very relaxed, and showed his preoccupation with his legacy by musing about what he was most proud of. He suggested it might be peace in Northern Ireland or our contribution to development. I was astonished by the latter because he had taken so little interest in development in his first term and the achievements of the department had often been made despite, rather than because of, the position of No 10.

He then went on to say that he knew I always preferred it when he and Gordon were working together (this was a reference to previous conversations) but he really needed Gordon to help him more. He then went on to say, in a confidential manner, that he really did not want a third term but he wished Gordon would work more closely with him so that he could make progress on the euro and, if he did so, he would then be happy to hand over to Gordon.

The conversation then moved on to Africa and other things. I remember how he kept referring to "my people", meaning people who worked with him in No 10. I was struck by this and found it odd, given that Tony was so dominant across the Government. It is another indication of his need to work with his own inner group. I said at the end of the meal that if he ever wanted me to say anything to Gordon, he should say so. He then made it quite clear that he wanted me to tell Gordon what he had said.

After Senegal, I left the Prime Minister's party and flew across to Kenya because I was going on to visit Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to try to help drive forward the peace process. I telephoned Gordon Brown from my hotel and said that I needed to meet him. The two of us met for lunch early the next week in his dining room in No 11 Downing Street. I conveyed my message and Gordon then said I was not the first to be asked to bring this message: two other members of the Cabinet had been asked to bring the same offer. Gordon's answer was that, first, such deals were not worth talking about because previous agreements had not been kept; and second, he would not contemplate recommending that we join the euro in order to advance his own position rather than advance the economic interest of the country.

¿ Much has been written about how, after John Smith's tragic heart attack in 1994, it was agreed that Blair rather than Brown should be his successor. Brown was unlucky. He had always been the senior partner in the relationship since they had come together through sharing an office in 1983. Brown was steeped in Labour history, intellectually strong and a strategic thinker. He had also shone in the House of Commons and in his various Shadow Cabinet jobs. I think that the reason he lost out to Blair was that as a loyal shadow chancellor to John Smith as leader, he had been very tough on the Shadow Cabinet in stopping them from making spending commitments, and this had bruised many egos. Blair had recently come to greater prominence as shadow Home Secretary with his famous policy of "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", which, it is said, was coined for him by his friend Gordon Brown.

The upshot of their conversations was that the decision was made that Blair rather than Brown would run. Whether or not Blair had promised to hand over to Brown we will never know for sure, but the election went ahead. Blair won with 57 per cent of the vote, and three years later became Prime Minister, with Brown as Chancellor.

The pledge to live within Tory spending plans for the first two years resulted in lower capital spending on public services in Labour's first term than in any comparable period in recent decades. The figures were shocking, but Brown and his highly influential political assistant, Ed Balls, later chief economic adviser at the Treasury, were playing a long game. They intended to expunge Labour's reputation for poor financial management ­ and the memory of every previous Labour government trying to spend and then being hit by financial crisis ­ to be able to pursue goals with a solid economy behind them.

By the time of Blair's second term, however, it became clear that neither Blair nor New Labour had any significant guiding principles, philosophy or values. The achievements of the Government on economic management, public expenditure and tackling child poverty were flowing largely from the Treasury. Gordon Brown, originally part of the New Labour project, was increasingly distanced from it. That distance remained in the run-up to the war.

On 22 November 2002 I wrote in my diary: "Had startling discussion with GB this week. Said not too worried re economy but sick of fighting against bad proposals: removing child benefit from parents whose children truant; foundation hospitals; top-up fees ... No 10 briefing against him would get worse and nasty. He wouldn't take any other job. Was in a hurry to move forward on extra $50bn oda [ie increase in international aid] because he did not know how long he would have ... TB doesn't listen to him any more and was listening only to non-Labour voices and thinking about his reputation in history."

A few weeks earlier, however, my diary records: "I had discussion with GB and said Iraq would divide Government and party and affect world economy ­ inflame the Arab world. We needed a better strategy ... I told him TB also said must go into euro before election and still meant what he said on trip to West Africa about not wanting a third term ... GB said he would think and get back, but on the euro it would take time to converge the economy. He also said No 10 had already asked Geoff Hoon to make 20,000 troops available."

As war neared, the Cabinet closed ranks, including Blair and Brown. On 13 March, I wrote in my diary: "GB spoke animatedly about what France was saying ­ no to everything. Jack Straw also anti-France. John Reid silly contribution about no members leaving the party. David Blunkett said we must stand by the PM and Chirac was reckless (silly man). Felt hopeful of progress ... Talked to GB. He had had dinner with JP and TB. Said would do media ... said he didn't want me to go but if I did make sure preparing for reconstruction so can return. I said preparing anyway."

John Prescott had brought Tony Blair and Gordon Brown together for dinner and Gordon had agreed to help Blair. It is also now clear that they had agreed their best way forward was to blame the French. Later, I had tabled a Commons statement on humanitarian preparations. There had been a request for interviews and I decided to do a few. Alastair Campbell told my press officer he was not keen for me to do interviews, so, as my diary records: "I rang TB. He said it would be good. GB thinks we should make more of commitment to UN for reconstruction. I said very pleased you and GB talking. He said I feel really boosted."

Abridged extract from "An Honourable Deception?" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) published on 1 November, priced £15.© Clare Short 2004