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

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:48

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.

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