When little brother took over

In our second extract from his new biography, John Rentoul looks at the friendship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Click to follow
The Independent Online
After the 1992 election, Gordon Brown's position was so strong that he had to discourage speculation that he might run against John Smith for the Labour leadership. It was certainly assumed - not least by Tony Blair - that Brown would be Smith's successor. But just two years later, Blair and Brown's 11-year friendship reached its most testing moment, when support for Blair turned out to be overwhelming.

They first met in 1983, as Labour's two youngest MPs. Blair initially shared an office with another new MP, the Militant Dave Nellist, and quickly moved into a windowless room with Brown which they shared until Brown was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1987.

For the first nine years of their friendship, Brown was unquestionably the senior, although only two years older. Friends attest to Blair's awe of Brown. One says: "He was mammothly dazzled by Brown's power."

Brown's standing as a future leader was confirmed when he stood in for shadow Chancellor John Smith after his first heart attack in 1988. Later that year he topped the Shadow Cabinet poll. But even then, Blair was not that far behind. He was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1988, and a year later promoted to shadow Employment Secretary.

Just five weeks into that job, he pulled off a coup which gave the first hint he was a future leader. Facing down luridly expressed trade union opposition, Blair calmly ditched Labour's support for the closed shop - a heresy akin to rewriting Clause IV. Neil Kinnock, who in his 1988 post-electoral depression had joked to Brown: "Be on hand - the party may need you", now welcomed Blair in front of Shadow Cabinet members with: "Here comes the next leader of the Labour Party".

Those close to Kinnock compared Blair's boldness with Brown's caution. As shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Brown was charged with dropping another icon - the commitment to renationalise British Telecom. One source says: "He would vacillate and vacillate. He said: `What are the unions going to say?' Kinnock's office said: `We'll tell you what the unions are going to say.' And Gordon just wouldn't focus, wouldn't do it, wouldn't take a risk, thought the unions would be against it."

The employment job was an important stepping-stone for Blair, but even after the 1992 election his position was still that of Brown's eager younger brother. Three factors shifted the balance of power between them. The first was Brown's promotion to shadow Chancellor. The second was Blair's own performance as shadow Home Secretary. And the third was Blair's greater prominence in the battle for "one member, one vote".

For Brown the shadow Chancellorship was logical, but it was to be his undoing. He defended the UK's membership of the European exchange rate mechanism right up to the moment when the pound was devalued in September 1992. And he pursued rigidly the line of "no new taxes". Both policies are arguably right if Labour is to win, but they bewildered party members.

Meanwhile, Blair flourished as shadow Home Secretary, as one of the few politicians capable of turning law and order into a winning issue for Labour. In January 1993 he unleashed "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" on BBC Radio's The World

This Weekend. Extraordinarily, the phrase itself came from Brown, although Brown denies it. Sources close to both of them confirmed this at the time. It may have been Brown's greatest contribution to his own eclipse.

A week later, Blair added to his reputation for determination. By now the unions were set on opposing John Smith's plans for "one member, one vote". Blair was the most outspoken of all Labour politicians, going on television to rule out any compromise. Smith warned him after this interview that he was endangering his chances of becoming leader. On the contrary, it helped to assure Blair's place as the favoured candidate of the "moderniser" faction.

On the morning of John Smith's death, Blair was in Aberdeen. He first heard the news when Brown called him. He set off back for London. Soon afterwards, outside Holborn Tube station, Blair's wife, Cherie, bumped into their friend Barry Cox, a London Weekend Television executive. She asked Cox if he agreed that Blair should stand for the leadership. Cox says: "Cherie was worried because Tony had always had this view that he shouldn't run against Gordon. That had become looser in the preceding 12 months, but he'd never actually said he would do it." Cox said he thought Blair should stand, and Cherie asked if she could call on him if necessary to help to persuade her husband.

When Blair arrived at his office opposite the House of Commons, four people were waiting with offers of support, including a Shadow Cabinet member, Mo Mowlam. Blair sent them all away, well aware that such discussions were inappropriate. But those close to Blair say he had decided straight away that he would run.

Blair kept a low public profile for several days. He wanted to allow a decent period of mourning for a much-admired leader, and to preserve his relationship with Brown. Largely for Brown's sake, he was non-committal about his intentions. Gerald Kaufman spoke to Blair the day after Smith's death, and telephoned Roy Hattersley five days later, to say: "He's still being difficult." Hattersley then telephoned Blair: "I said to him he had to do it. And I remember what he said to me. He said: `But Gordon has wanted it so much. Much more than I ever have.' I said: `Well, there are a lot of people who wanted to lead the Labour Party who had to get used to the idea that they're not going to. And Gordon just has to join a rather long and distinguished line.' "

As Hattersley himself concedes, Blair's reluctance was feigned. Not all of Gordon Brown's supporters were taken in. One of them told Brown: "He's going for it."

Blair and Brown talked constantly but inconclusively from the moment Brown heard about Smith's heart attack. Brown appeared bemused and hurt by Blair's ambition. Already devastated by the loss of John Smith, he may have simply assumed that he would succeed him. He was not best placed to observe that the landscape had changed over the previous two years.

The press has made much of the "secret pact" between Blair and Brown not to stand against each other for the leadership. There certainly had been an "understanding" between the two, dating from 1992, although it was ambiguous. They agreed it would be disastrous to stand against each other in a leadership election, and in 1992 they shared the view that Brown was in the stronger position. But the agreement implicitly envisaged that the position might change. For Blair, the difficulty was how to convey to Brown that it had. The result was an awkward impasse. It is not clear when Brown admitted defeat to himself, although on the night before John Smith's funeral, a week after his death, he joked to his kitchen cabinet that when he met Blair the next day hewould ask him to be his campaign manager - a dry acknowledgement of his ally's commanding position. His team had assembled at Brown's home in Edinburgh to work on Brown's first speech since Smith's death, to the Wales Labour Party. In that speech Brown said: "For us now more than ever before, this is the time to unite." The implication was that he would not run, but his advisers did not discourage newspapers from reporting it as the opening shot in the leadership campaign.

That week, the pressure on Brown to declare his intentions became intense. On that evening of Thursday 26 May, his unofficial campaign manager, Nick Brown, MP for Newcastle East, told Gordon that he had to decide by the weekend. They reviewed Nick Brown's list of Labour MPs, 50 marked G for Gordon. Nick said he could not canvass those marked T for Target or ? for Don't Know unless he could say that Gordon was going to run.

Still Brown refused to commit himself. That weekend his last hopes were dashed by a BBC survey of party members showing him trailing Blair by 47 per cent to 11. But Blair had no idea what Brown was going to say when they met for the "Last Supper" at the

minimalist Granita restaurant in Islington on 31 May.

The Granita dinner became inscribed in political legend, mythologised as a moment of supreme self-sacrifice. In fact, its only significance was as the moment when Brown chose to bow formally to the fact of Blair's impending victory.

Brown actually decided to withdraw the previous night at another secret dinner. At Joe Allen's restaurant in Covent Garden with his advisers, he said he knew he could win only by "calling on such dark and awful forces" that it would negate the attempt. It would mean having to portray Blair as SDP non-Labour, anti-trade union. It would have been an appalling campaign which might have damaged the party's chances - and thus his own - of gaining office, and destroyed the relationship between the two.

Brown stood down at 3.30pm on 1 June. He had finally been overtaken by his admiring younger brother. But some in the party feel that Blair's victory was not quite clear enough. The manner of Brown's withdrawal has, they argue, left Blair with an obligation to him that may constrain him in future. One of Blair's more calculating supporters says: "Perhaps it would have been better if Gordon had run. Not for Tony to humiliate him, but to break the link. If Tony believes that he has a debt to Gordon, that'sa damaging state of affairs."

Brown's position in the party is undoubtedly immensely powerful because of his long, close relationship with Blair. Only last week he was described on television as "Labour's deputy leader". This could mean tension ahead, not least with the actual deputyleader, whose differences with Brown's New Economics are ill-concealed.

The author's biography of Tony Blair will be published by Little Brown in September.

Comments