A contest Gordon Brown could never have won

re-writing history
  • @indyvoices
In politics, the past is seldom another country. Every relationship, every alliance, every enmity, is shaped by what went before. Politicians may - sometimes - forgive; but they never forget. Each new revelation about the murky facts of the succession to Harold Macmillan in 1963 still has the power to excite Conservatives, and that was a generation ago. How much more potent therefore are the recollections of the big epoch- changing events of the recent past. So the claims advanced on Gordon Brown's behalf in Paul Routledge's new biography of the Chancellor about Tony Blair's accession to the Labour leadership will resonate. MPs will dissect endlessly the contentions that Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell had shown they were ready to wage a dirty war against his candidacy, but that Brown's sacrifice in standing down was even greater than it seems because Brown could have beaten Blair had he chosen to run.

We should take no notice whatever of the ritual disclaimer by the Brown camp of the Routledge biography. There is no reason whatever to question the dust jacket claim that it was written with the Chancellor's "full co-operation". Routledge, author of several good biographies, including an outstanding one of Arthur Scargill, is too experienced and too skilled a reporter (being one of a select few political journalists to have among his other assets the old-fashioned one of an excellent shorthand note) for this to be other than an authentic and diligently researched account of the analysis proffered by Gordon Brown, or those who spoke for him, of what took place in the aftermath of John Smith's tragic death in May 1994. The question therefore is whether the analysis itself is correct and not whether Routledge's impeccably sourced version of it is accurate.

Most reporters who were in the Commons lobbies that deeply emotional morning of 12 May were struck by how frequently Tony Blair's name passed the lips of Labour MPs - including some on the left - as the potential leader. This newspaper, without the benefit of any of Mandelson's black arts and without in any way calling the outcome, reported the following morning that Blair had already edged out in front. (The following day Mandelson did brief - that Brown's candidacy should definitely not be written off). But this was of course an utterly unscientific judgement. What were more scientific were the opinion polls published that weekend which showed that Blair was significantly ahead among the public. As Routledge himself acknowledges, three national opinion polls published the Sunday after John Smith's death showed Blair between 11 and 15 points ahead of Gordon Brown and John Prescott. And this was not just among floating voters, important as that was. In at least one of these, Blair, at 24 per cent, was nine points ahead among Labour supporters over his nearest rival John Prescott at 15 - with Brown just one point behind at 14. The electorate, of course, do not pick the Labour leader. But the 1990 Tory leadership contest had demonstrated the hugely influential impact of public opinion on MPs in their choice of leader. And this, don't forget, was a party aching to win after15 years in opposition. Ten days later, moreover, a Scotsman poll of MPs in Scotland, where Brown could be expected to do best, showed that while 15 out of 42 MPs firmly supported him (compared with only six firm Blairites) another six styled themselves as Brown supporters who would prefer him to stand down in favour of Blair. Finally, an Independent- BBC poll of trade union levy payers also showed Blair well out in front.

Despite all this the Brown camp continue to insist that at the time Brown bowed out of his campaign, manager-designate Nick Brown had a list of 120 Brown MP supporters and that the Shadow Chancellor could have defeated Blair if he had chosen to. This wasn't the view taken by Chris Smith who is quoted in John Rentoul's biography of Blair as saying the overwhelming wish of the Parliamentary Labour Party was for Blair and not Brown to stand, or of David Blunkett who is quoted in Jon Sopel's rival biography as telling Blair that the leadership was his if he went decisively for it, or of Tories who expected - and feared - Blair as leader.

Anthony Seldon's biography of John Major, citing authoritative Downing Street and Conservative Central Office sources at the time, says the first reaction to John Smith's untimely death was sympathy; second - and gruesomely - that it had "stuffed Hezza" as a potential Tory leader, given Michael Heseltine's own previous heart attack; third, that it would "obviously" let Blair in and this would mean "far greater problems" for Major. The implication of the pro-Brown analysis is that Brown might have picked up some left-wing support for an all-out attack on "the upper-class, public school-educated Tony Blair". But then it is highly probable that if Brown had run, his old rival Cook would have done too - with unpredictable consequences on the left.

Brown has been, and continues to be, a gigantic figure in the modernisation of the Labour Party and of Britain. He is astoundingly secure as an indispensable Chancellor who punches distinctively above his weight in the Cabinet and remains the powerful joint custodian of the Government's credibility in the markets. For several years, moreover, his intellectual fertility and deep Labour roots made him the senior partner in the relationship with Blair.

Had the modernisers put up a candidate after Neil Kinnock stood down in 1992 it is highly probable that it would have been Brown rather Blair. But politics are endlessly fluid. For many reasons - some of them utterly beyond his control, such as the fact that as Shadow Chancellor he was forced to take unpopular decisions to extract Labour from its addiction to tax and spending, while Blair was able to shine as Shadow Home Secretary - the climate had changed by 1994. Charles Clarke, the MP who was once Neil Kinnock's adviser, may have been harsh when he said that perhaps it would have been better if Brown had run for the leadership and had been beaten. But to perpetuate the myth that he could have defeated Blair does Brown himself little service. It may even damage his hopes of eventually succeeding as Prime Minister. Blair was always easily the front-runner, and not even the supernatural qualities routinely ascribed to Peter Mandelson could ever have changed that.