John Rentoul: There was no plot. I hope there's one now

The 'Causes of the Fall of Blair' were a great deal more complicated than the machinations of Ed Balls and Ed Miliband

Share
Related Topics

I am here to defend Ed Balls. The documents published last week are valuable primary sources for contemporary historians, but they do not prove that he was a plotter. The allegation that he conspired to push Tony Blair out of office may be true. I certainly do not think that he was working ceaselessly to ensure that the country had the benefit of Blair's leadership for as long as possible. But The Daily Telegraph's documents do not substantiate the opposite case.

There is no email there to Labour MPs frustrated by Blair's failure to recognise their ability, such as Chris Bryant and Sion Simon, saying: "What about writing a letter to TB to tell him that the game is up?"

We know that there was a plot, because Bryant, Simon and 13 others wrote that letter in September 2006, and one minister – Tom Watson – and seven parliamentary private secretaries resigned. We know, too, that Gordon Brown was responsible for it, (a) because he could have stopped it and (b) because it is completely obvious. I have always assumed that Balls knew all about it, and discussed it with Brown and other members of the Stable and Orderly Transition Task Force, but that he did not telephone, text or email possible resigners himself.

The coup appeared to succeed, in that Blair was forced to announce that that month's party conference as Prime Minister would be his last. But it would be a misreading of history to see Blair's departure as the result of a conspiracy against him.

I am an admirer of Blair's. I think that Gordon Brown behaved appallingly and should not have been prime minister. But I do not think that Blair could have survived much longer than he did. I hoped for November 2008, because he would have outlasted Thatcher, but I don't think that was possible by the end, for reasons which have nothing to do with Ed Balls.

"The Causes of the Fall of Blair" is one of my favourite seminars at Queen Mary, University of London, because it is like the causes of the English Civil War or the origins of the First World War: a classic history essay. The main cause was Iraq, after which most of the Labour Party had had enough of him. He got through the 2005 election, but only by restoring Brown to his right hand. Hard to recall now, but Brown was the most popular politician in Britain at the time. He was the most successful chancellor since at least Lloyd George and possibly ever. Several polls suggested that Labour would do better in the 2005 election had he been leader. They were wrong, I am sure, but you can hardly blame Brown and his lieutenants, including Balls and the present leader, for believing their own propaganda.

After the election, the cash-for-honours rolling news story undermined Blair's moral authority. The media madness may have been stoked by Brown, but would have happened anyway, and it was Blair's own fault for trying to reward people who had secretly funded his party (that is, the Blairites, as opposed to Brown's party, which, equally disgracefully, had a "fund with no name" of its own in the Labour Party accounts).

And then came the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Blair could have responded in a way that respected the tender consciences of Labour MPs. But he had had enough, so he said what he thought – that there was no way he was going to join the easy calls for a "ceasefire", which could imply that Israel had no right to defend itself. I am told that MPs telephoned John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, for days to complain that the Boss had gone too far.

With that weight of his parliamentary party against him, and with an electorate that had had enough of him after nine years, the plot – the letter and resignations – was merely the last pebble in the balance, tipping a mechanism that was primed and ready to go. Amazingly, Blair still managed to get out, after another nine months, with his dignity intact.

The importance of the Balls papers, therefore, is not what they tell us about the shadow chancellor's character. Although there are two important points there. One is that some of the Brown party are cross about Balls's lax security. "I used to make sure that everything was shredded, anything on the computer was password-protected, and even papers kept at home were under lock and key," says one. He seems to have left them in his desk at the Department for Children, Schools and Families and not noticed that they were missing when he moved out. The other is that the doodle of the gyrating pig looks as if it ought to be quite revealing, although it probably is not.

The importance of this little historical treasure trove is more what it says about the ideological divide between Blairites and Brownites. Blair's light-as-air essay on how his successor should reconcile continuity and change is simple: New Labour would be continuity, "a different person is, by its nature, change". Brown responded with thick-pen fury: "Shallow; inconsistent; muddled; extreme; bad judgement."

But Blair was right, and the divide paralyses Labour today. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls think they can win by attacking the coalition from the left, whereas the Blairites think Labour has to contest the centre ground by fighting some of its battles from the right. The Labour leader seems to be accepting that argument in his speech tomorrow on "responsibility", and he has pulled out of sharing a platform with Bob Crow, the anti-Labour union leader, at the Durham miners gala this autumn. Yet these are small steps for a party sunk in its own irrelevance. As Alastair Campbell observed last week, Labour is currently the "third most interesting party" for the average journalist.

So, no, Ed Balls is not a plotter. He is secure in his post, knowing that, for the Labour Party, "shadow chancellor" often means "next leader". But I hope that someone, somewhere, is plotting to come forward to lead the party back to the centre.



independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
 

Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

Boyd Tonkin
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss