Steve Richards: Explosive memos? Calm down, dears

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

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.

React Now

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

Science Technician

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:School Science Technici...

School Administrator

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Long term SIMS School Administr...

Nursery assistants required across Cambridgeshire

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

SEN 1:1 Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified teache...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Scottish referendum: The people of my country have brought a catastrophe upon themselves by voting No

Simon Brooke
Young voters leave a polling station in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh  

Scottish referendum results: The independence question is resolved for a generation at least

Douglas Alexander
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week