Steve Richards: Explosive memos? Calm down, dears

This is an exercise aimed at damaging Ed Balls. Yet, the documents are not incriminating

Share
Related Topics

The rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is back like a sleeping monster that awakes every few months to wreak destructive havoc on the party they led.

The latest re-awakening takes the form of leaked memos that once belonged to Ed Balls and are now published in The Daily Telegraph. The monstrous activity is to do with the present and not the past. This is an exercise aimed at damaging Balls now, rather than triggering a further historic seminar on Blair and Brown, the most familiar theme in British politics.

And yet the documents are not incriminating. Indeed, the context in which they were written shows why it would be more of a shock if such memos had not been composed as Labour's long internal battle reached a dénouement. They were part of the post-2005 election frenzy. Blair had already announced he was standing down. The key questions were when and in what circumstances. This was the period when Blair was following his reform programme with resolute determination and with the enthusiastic support of David Cameron. Labour was sinking in the polls. Not surprisingly, Brown and his entourage sought an early prime ministerial departure, and one done in a way that gave the superficial impression of unity. Ironically, in the light of what has followed, Brown was obsessively determined to avoid accusations of regicide.

There is a wider context too. Brown was caught out when John Smith died suddenly in 1994. He had not planned for a leadership contest. Blair would have won in any circumstances in 1994, but Brown and his allies resolved to be ready next time. This is hardly a surprise. Imagine if Brown had not prepared as the prime ministerial vacancy came into tantalising view. That would have been weirder and more newsworthy. Plotting is a part of politics. There were endless plots against Harold Wilson and one or two against John Major. Margaret Thatcher was never sure what Michael Heseltine was up to. This plot happened to be almost successful in the sense that Blair departed in 2007 and, very superficially, there was a smooth transition.

Of course, these memos are not viewed through the prism of the plotters finally achieving their aim – highly unusual in the long history of political plotting – but from the perspective of election defeat and the fact that senior plotters around Brown lead Labour now. This is a false perspective. The memos were written when no one knew what would follow.

They are interesting for different reasons. There is a widespread assumption that there were no policy differences between the two courts. It was all about insane ambition. There is no question that a dangerous dose of ambition played its part, but Brown's memos show a concern about markets in health and education, a preoccupation with addressing poverty, a quite perceptive reading of David Cameron's politics and the tentative framing of an alternative. The themes are all still relevant today as a bewildered Labour Party wonders what to do next.

Similarly in relation to the now fashionable assumption that Brown let public spending rip against the wishes of Blair, it is illuminating to read a memo suggesting that the then chancellor was alarmed by the expenditure implications of Blairite initiatives, from ID cards to city academies. Like most prime ministers, Blair was keen on restraining public spending in general and demanding billions of additional pounds for his favourite policies.

But even if the memos are interesting, they are not explosive. John Major once noted that if he made a speech in Parliament, no one noticed. If he wrote a memo with the same words and leaked it, all hell would break loose. Part of the frenzy reflects a sense that we are seeing something we are not supposed to see, even if we already know, more or less, what is revealed. Politics is changing fast. Several senior politicians have told me that in the age of Twitter and blogs they work on the assumption that nothing is off the record any more, that if they say anything interesting in private, it will become public. Anyone with any sense will stop writing or emailing before very long, although in this case Balls could not have been obsessively protective of these documents if he left them in his old departmental office after Labour's election defeat. Perhaps he did not consider them to be excessively significant.

In one sense they are not. In another they reflect and impact on the current troubled Labour party. Labour has hardly started to come to terms with the rivalries of Blair and Brown, the duo that dominated their party to a greater extent than Thatcher did hers. The duo hovered over last summer's leadership contest with Balls suffering from his association with Brown and David Miliband from his with Blair. Ed Miliband sought space by somehow or other distancing himself from Brown as well as Blair, and acquired definition through the leap. In different ways, all three leading candidates were defined by Blair and Brown, as Tory candidates were shaped by their views of Thatcher in their leadership contests.

The duo continues to hover. In particular, Blair admirers are prominent in Labour, the Coalition and the media. Ed Miliband cannot ignore them and is understandably wary of taking them on. Yet he needs to move his party on from the recent past. The same dilemma faced Brown when he became leader. He did not solve it. Can his successor move on from both his predecessors? That is the key topical question posed by documents that capture a moment from the recent past.





s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?