There is a book to be written about the explosive books on the last Labour government. Already a steep mountain of memoirs has formed, nearly all of which have generated violent storms as each has shed more light on the warfare at the top of Britain’s longest-serving Labour administration. More importantly, although they refer to the past, they have an impact on the present.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will be relieved, and probably knew in advance, that Damian McBride’s contribution to the mountain leaves them relatively unscathed. If there were dynamite on either Miliband or Balls it would have been set off on day one of the serialisation. Evidently McBride has decided to take a lot of the hits himself and spare others whom he still holds in very high regard. Most specifically McBride takes full responsibility for the briefings against Gordon Brown’s cabinet colleagues, details of which were published yesterday. The gory accounts of how McBride targeted those whom he regarded as rivals to Brown, or who were acting in ways that were deemed to be awkward, raise two key questions. How accurate is his claim that he acted without explicit orders from Brown and others? What impact will his book have on this week’s Labour conference, most specifically on Miliband and Balls?
I assume McBride is speaking truthfully when he suggests he acted more or less on instinct. Brown was acutely aware of the power of the media, its capacity to destroy his aching political ambition and, conversely, its importance in helping him to reach the top. He also felt the need to be fully armoured in relation to the media because Tony Blair had the brilliant Alastair Campbell. As part of Brown’s determination to have a separate empire he relied on what he took to be his equivalent.
But with no previous experience in journalism McBride got carried away with his role, assuming at times he was being far cleverer than he was. As he now accepts, the attacks on other colleagues were pointlessly destructive, onslaughts that continue to cause internal tensions. It should be stressed that some Blairites were relentless critics of Brown in private, but speak to those who regard themselves as victims of McBride, sometimes wrongly, and they quickly return to the nightmares of Brownite machismo, noting ruefully that Brown’s main allies now lead their party. Much of the tension has not died.
This latest episode of a highly complex tragedy is emblematic. On the basis of his compelling blogs, I assume McBride has written an elegant and substantial book. Almost certainly there will be material that future historians will use to show how Brown was one of the more substantial figures in Labour’s history, a flawed titan. But most voters will not read the book – they will merely note the headlines.
In doing so they answer the second question about the book’s impact on the present. The serialisation is a small gift to David Cameron and George Osborne who hope to win the next election by arguing that, when in power, Miliband and Balls wrecked the economy and should not be given the chance to do so again. The revelations fuel the sense that they were all too busy fighting each other to pay attention to the economy. In the more multi-layered reality, they were doing both.
Leaders find it very difficult to escape from negative perceptions of the recent past. At the start of a week in which Miliband wants to look ahead, the past, or a version of it, returns to divert him once more.
Steve Richards’ book on Gordon Brown and New Labour, ‘Whatever It Takes’ is published by Fourth Estate