Matthew Norman: These petty buffoons who ruled over us

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The Independent Online

In the wee small hours of 2 May 1997, just as millions of us were doing laps of honour around our living rooms and gardens to mark Michael Portillo's demise, a captivating vignette was playing itself out at Glasgow airport. Indeed, this may have have been the most poignant tarmac scene the world has known since Casablanca.

Gordon Brown and Robin Cook arrived simultaneously to catch a flight to London for the Millbank festivities, but like Ilsa and Rick, they didn't board the same aircraft after all. Despite well knowing that they'd both be departing at the same time for the same destination, and at an extra cost of several thousand pounds, they had hired separate planes.

At what Mr Tony Blair was soon to describe, as the sun rose over central London, as "the dawn of a new era", two titanic figures in the embryonic government – Chancellor, no less, and Foreign Secretary – remained too deeply marooned in ancient rivalry to contemplate being civil to one another for so much as an hour. This could be the continuation of beautiful enmity, one felt, and so it proved.

In almost a decade as a newspaper diarist I must have written 10,000 stories, and this was right up there in the top five. For compressed into the one footling anecdote was a predictive snapshot of the envy, vanity and toddler-level egomania arrayed in such gruesome detail by the trio of memoirs serialised over recent days.

Reading the purple prose of Lord Levy, John Prescott and Cherie, the question that continually poses itself is what were we thinking of. How in the name of all the saints did we allow all those über-buffoons to swank it over us for so long without marching on Downing Street, or at least lobbing the odd Molotov at one of those grace and favour flats in which Mr Prescott sporadically schtupped Tracey Temple?

All administrations are suffused with rancour and turf wars, of course, Harold Wilson's in the mid-late 1960s being so riven with chaotic internecine skirmishing that he created a faux-rival to the Treasury, the Department of Economic Affairs, just to keep George Brown quiet for the odd hour or two when he wasn't drunkenly composing his daily letter of resignation. With the likes of Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, Roy Jenkins, Dick Crossman, Tony Crosland, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, at times the Cabinet more closely resembled a loose confederation of feudal baronies than collegiate seat of power.

Yet these were all colossal political figures, as to a slightly lesser extent were the factions in the "wet vs dry" early Thatcher years. In both cases (and even with John Major's Euro-warriors) the source of friction was at least as much the policy as the personal. What typifies the New Labour years is the tininess of the characters and the overweening queeniness with which they filled the ideological vacuum.

The vengeful pettiness of the three-pronged autobiographical attack on Gordon Brown suggests an election ad when the time comes. Faced with giant posters featuring the gurning features of Prescott, Levy and Cherie, and the slogan: "They hate me. Can you?", I'd be tempted to vote him back in regardless of whatever fresh fiasci he has in store for us during the next two-and-a-bit years.

Of Levy I have already written my fill. So let it merely be observed that the sight of his little lordship grinning like a bouffant-coiffed jackal while confiding his pessimism about Gordon's chances to Newsnight's Michael Crick, was the visual equivalent of downing a pint of salt water in one.

That vomitous analogy brings us, by way of a local radio link, to the ever-eruptive Mouth of the Humber. What ringing tribute it is to John Prescott's oft-averred love of his party that he would merrily knife its leader to justify the large advance a publisher was prepared to pay for these exquisite ghost-written reflections. How and why the glorious Pauline puts up with this lardy compendium of resentments (pushing 70, and still banging on about failing that bleedin' 11 plus) is beyond me.

And so, because we have no choice, to the memoirist who ignored and patronised Pauline all those years, that one woman would-be saviour of the property market, Cherie. For once with her, it isn't the rapacity that hyperactivates the bile. Nor is it the viciousness towards Gordon, of which we already knew so much, nor even the snide dismissals of Sarah Brown. This time it's the barely imaginable selfishness.

Consider this recollection regarding Little Leo and the longstanding mystery of the triple jab. "I did get Leo vaccinated, not least because it's irresponsible not to – there's absolutely no doubt that the incidence of disease goes up if vaccinations go down – and he was given his MMR jab within the recommended time-frame. I was adamant, however, that I would not give the press chapter and verse. They had no right and it would set a bad precedent."

If this was the kind of bad precedent that might one day lead to newspapers carrying reports that, oh blimey, I dunno, let's pluck something from nowhere ... that her fourth child was an accident ... you take her point. No one normal would wish their son to grow up knowing that, let alone knowing everyone else knows too, and such tender concern for her offsprings's privacy festoons her with laurels.

What is so astounding here is that, in the full self-confessed knowledge of what she was doing, she contributed richly to the resurgence of as potentially lethal a childhood illness as measles. How many parents were influenced by her refusal to say whether Leo had had it, and what proportion of the children involved were permanently damaged as a result, is unguessable. But there must have been some, and she could have prevented it not by giving "chapter and verse", whatever that may mean, but by intoning the word "Yes".

Given the choice between ending a ridiculous but very dangerous health scare with a one-word answer to a legitimate question, and spiting the press by withholding that solitary word, she smugly and self-congratulatory opted for the latter.

I think this may be the single pettiest act I have ever come across, and it encapsulates the guiding spirit of New Labour – the complacency, the self-righteousness, the wildly misplaced sense of moral superiority, the sheer nastiness, the staggering lack of self-awareness – to perfection. So looking back now on the tale of Glasgow airport, I see that I was, as usual, wrong. At the time, the image of Ilsa Brown and dear old Cookie Blane taking to their separate jets seemed a far more valuable hint of what was to follow than it proved. However apparent it was back then that things could only get worse, who had any idea quite how monstrously trivial they would become?