So he decided he needed Brown after all


There is an irritating new word doing the rounds; or, rather, an old word being used in an irritating new way. This is "narrative". It still means a story, but one that serves some ulterior, persuasive purpose. The approved narrative of the election now goes something as follows:

Labour wrongfooted by Howard, notably on immigration and asylum (not that many people can or want to distinguish between them, certainly not Howard) - Government adopts defensive position - penny drops, Blair unpopular and unable to produce effect of last two elections - consternation all round - what to do? - send for Brown - arrives on cue - swears eternal friendship with PM - public bows down before Chancellor - happiness throughout land - Labour heads for huge majority.

This - is it not? - is more or less the story that has been told, several times (indeed, over and over again), during the past week. It undoubtedly contains an element of truth. What the complete truth is we shall learn ... I was about to write, when the private papers of ministers are made available in many years' time. But I was forgetting that ministers in the present government do not believe in committing themselves to paper.

Some assiduous researcher, now at school, may spend months at the newspaper library at Colindale, North London, if it still exists then, and receive copious praise for his or her work with the best available sources; whereas if exactly the same work had been done this year for publication in 2006, it would have been denounced scornfully as a "cuttings job". For there is a snobbery about using newspapers as a source: the further back you go, the more scholarly is the research considered to be.

At all events, our young seeker after truth will discover that someone called Alan Milburn, who subsequently retired from active politics to run a group of private hospitals in the North-East, was given the task of superintending the Labour government's election campaign of 2005. Mr Milburn had earlier retired from the Cabinet to spend more time with his family, as the hallowed phrase of the period went. Now he was being recalled to active duty under the pleasantly feudal title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: a convenient means of paying him out of public funds for doing party work.

This may have been disreputable but it was by no means unprecedented: holders of the office in question had long been rewarded as political odd-job men for their parties. And, in any event, Mr Tony Blair's administrations had long been notorious for - it might almost be said, taken a pride in - blurring any previous distinctions between what was properly work for the government and work for the party. It was not even specially interesting that Mr Milburn was rejoining a government from which he had earlier departed, for several politicians, of both parties, had followed that course, with greater or lesser degrees of success. No, what was more than interesting, what was to the political classes fascinating, was that Mr Milburn was being recalled to do a job which had previously been done by Mr Gordon Brown. And Mr Brown, not to mention Mr Brown's many friends, lost no time in making known his displeasure.

The relations between Mr Blair and Mr Brown had been much discussed for years before April 2005 and formed the subject of numerous books of the period. At the root of the matter was a dispute of fact: had Mr Blair promised Mr Brown that at some stage he would retire gracefully to enable Mr Brown to become party leader? And, if he had, what stage had been agreed?

The meeting was held at the Granita restaurant in Islington, often, even if misleadingly, described as the spiritual home of New Labour. The restaurant specialised in what might be called girls' food, charging £10 (a substantial sum in those days) for a plate of fresh pasta, wilted spinach and shaved Parmesan. It is now out of business. One version is that Mr Brown ate no dinner, satisfying his hunger by means of a meal later on with more congenial companions in the Westminster area; the other version is that he had two dinners that evening.

The bickering between the two became so intolerable - like that of a married couple heading not so much for the divorce courts as for the Old Bailey - that in 2004 Mr Blair was forced into making a statement that he would retire from Downing Street at some time in his third term of office, though at what time precisely was left vague. Sometimes he would hint one thing, sometimes another, varying with his mood and the political requirements of the moment. In April 2005, for instance, politics dictated that he should hint he would stay for many years.

The early weeks of the pre-election campaign saw Mr Blair or, at least, Mr Blair's friends depreciating Mr Brown. Instead of Chancellor, he would be reappointed Foreign Secretary, a job he did not want; some even went so far as to whisper that he might be dropped completely. Like a Victorian suitor rejected in love, Mr Brown took himself abroad, a part of the world he had never greatly favoured, with the exception of the United States. He went to the Dark Continent and to the wastes of China.

Then someone at No 10 decided that Mr Brown was needed after all. He was placed squarely in front of the cameras, a god from the party machine. If there was one feeling, we were informed, whose strength exceeded Mr Brown's admiration for Mr Blair, it was Mr Blair's unfailing regard for Mr Brown. They had known each other man and boy, as young MPs sharing a stuffy office in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster. They were devoted, like brothers. It was the greatest nonsense imaginable.

What had happened was that Mr Blair had concluded that he needed Mr Brown; Mr Brown, not perhaps that he needed Mr Blair in quite the same way, but that it was in his interest to cooperate fully. Some months ago the Tories coined the slogan Vote Blair, Get Brown. It was jettisoned when they discovered that this was what many voters wanted to happen. Likewise, Labour publicists in the papers have been urging their readers, particularly those who were opposed to the war in Iraq, to vote Labour because this would be a vote for Brown, not Blair.

It is all very odd. For Mr Brown supported the war, even if with no great display of enthusiasm. Far from being some old socialist, it was he who was responsible for the private-public racket which is currently afflicting London Transport. Mr Blair may decide not to retire after all. And, when he does, he cannot guarantee the succession to Mr Brown. What the Chancellor has up his sleeve are not the keys to No 10 but some hefty tax increases.

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