“Blair Unbound” – Anthony Seldon – Full Report
Comment at end
21st October, 2007
[As in The Mail on Sunday today. Copied in its entirety with links to The Mail, and information at the foot of the page for purchase of the book.]
New book uncovers the brutal endgame that led Brown to unseat Blair
On Friday, May 5, 2006, Gordon Brown was scheduled to give an interview on the Today programme on Radio 4. Tony Blair was weak following a disastrous reshuffle and poor local election results.
Blair had plucked the crown from Brown after John Smith’s death in 1994; here was the Chancellor’s opportunity finally to pull the trigger and claim what he believed was rightfully his.
As one Downing Street aide told me: “Gordon could have killed Tony on that Friday.”
News filtered into No10 of a grid of Brownite sympathisers lined up to go to the media and declare that, at the very least, the bad results indicated that Blair needed to set a date for the handover.
Ed Balls, then Economic Secretary to the Treasury and a dedicated foe of the Prime Minister, was believed to be pulling the strings.
“We’d had a lot of indications that there was an operation being put in place,” says Hilary Armstrong, then Chief Whip. Only its ferocity and manner were unknown.
In front of the Today microphone, at 8.10am, Brown said: “We have got to renew ourselves…it must start now,” and he described the events of the previous two weeks as a “warning shot for the Government”.
In these critical minutes, he had the power to fire the shot that would have finished off a wounded Prime Minister. Brown pulled back. He could not find the words.
No10 learned of Brown’s inner circle going “completely mad” with him for pulling back from the coup de grace, and for not sticking to the script they thought they had agreed with him: to call in the strongest terms for an urgent transition.
Ed Balls reportedly screamed at his boss: “You bottled it!”
Balls loathed Blair, regarding him as “a moron”. His increasingly assertive role at the Treasury struck some as echoing the 1963 film The Servant, in which the butler, played by Dirk Bogarde, progressively takes over as the dominant force from the owner of the house, James Fox.
No 10 agreed that Brown had indeed missed his opportunity.
“Had Gordon talked about Margaret Thatcher staying on too long on the Today programme, it could have been fatal,” a source says.
They felt that their initial suspicions of a plot were confirmed when a string of pro-Brown supporters went on the airwaves and discussed how bad the local election results were and the need for a transition.
No 10 had not been notified about their plans.
Brown utterly denied any involvement and still does. One long-standing Brownite, speaking off the record, admitted the extent of Brown’s complicity: “It was always going to happen, from the moment Tony Blair came back to power in the 2005 General Election and carried on exactly as before.
“They only waited for the ideal moment. ‘I’ve put up with this for a year,’ Gordon said, ‘but no longer.’ We all said, ‘Give him his ten years,’ but Gordon was getting so upset that Tony wasn’t consulting him and that he wasn’t giving him a date.
“Gordon’s great fear was that he would go on until 2008.”
Brown’s camp, says the source, was deeply involved: “They’d been planning something like the coup from day one after the General Election.
“They knew that if they got into year two with no move from Gordon, they would have to promote it – provoke it would be a better word.
“His position on the coup would have been ‘I won’t stand in your way, but you can’t, you mustn’t implicate me or show I instigated anything.’
“But he knew of it.”
‘You’ve appointed that f****** Milburn!’
The failed May coup was the culmination of events that had begun gathering pace in early 2005 as the Prime Minister planned his strategy for the coming General Election.
Blair knew then that the “Brown problem” would have to be dealt with once and for all.
He started giving out signals that he was serious about moving the Chancellor, possibly to the Foreign Office.
“I’m going to drive my public service agenda and not let myself be blackmailed or blocked any more by the bloody Treasury,” he would say.
One close aide would often ask Blair, “Are you really up for this?” to which he replied, “I’m going to take no more s*** from over the road, I’m going to do it.”
Blair had further concerns about Brown, and they were personal. “He was worried about Gordon’s character and personality, the dark side of his nature, his paranoia and his inability to collaborate.”
By mid-March, the talk was that Blair was determined to move Brown from the Treasury after the Election – if he thought he had the necessary political capital.
However, with polling day – May 5 – fast approaching it became obvious the Election campaign wasn’t working. Brown, who had always been seen as campaign co-ordinator, was furious that Blair had selected former Health Secretary Alan Milburn to spearhead it.
The Chancellor’s team interpreted the move as the Prime Minister saying: “I’m going to run this Election campaign with my own man at the helm and I’m going to win it, take the spoils and then I’ll be able to dictate terms to Gordon.
“Then I’ll be able to do the things I want in the third term or be powerful enough to sack him if he won’t let me.” They had it spot-on.
Brown did not react well. “You’ve appointed that f****** Milburn!” he raged at the Prime Minister.
“Why’s Milburn coming back? Is it about cooking the manifesto against me? This is symptomatic of the way you behave.”
The Treasury moved into a policy of non-co-operation. “Their attitude was, ‘You’re on your own and you can p*** off,'” says one No10 aide.
Throughout February, Brown came to the General Election strategy group but would sit sullenly, apart from the periodic interjection of a highly critical comment.
One wag dubbed it “the group of death”. Reports began to appear that the Chancellor was sulking.
Eventually Alastair Campbell, who was advising on the Election, visited Brown and persuaded him to rejoin the campaign.
Brown had conditions: Milburn would vanish into the wings; there was to be a cast-iron guarantee that Brown would remain Chancellor in the third term; and he would have a major role over not only appointments but also policy until such time as he took over.
Many of Blair’s loyalists were angry that Brown was back and thought the Prime Minister had panicked needlessly. “All of those working on the ‘third-term plan’ instantaneously realised that Gordon was going to be the Chancellor. All our work was dead.”
Labour won with a reduced majority, squashing once and for all Blair’s hopes of doing anything to Brown against his will.
However, he was adamant that this would be a Blairite government. The “dual” leadership of the preceding weeks was now over.
Brown had expected to be consulted fully in the subsequent reshuffle and considered it part of the “deal” of his returning to the front line. But Blair had decided that instead he was going to move in on the Treasury appointments.
“Isn’t it at last time to sack Dawn Primarolo?” he asked. Brown reacted to protect her.
“Is my team all you’re going to talk to me about? I thought you said you’d consult me over the whole Government. You promised me,” he said indignantly.
“Gordon, it’s got to be my reshuffle,” Blair responded. ‘I am the Prime Minister.”
The Treasury very quickly got the message that the Chancellor was not going to be involved at all. “Their response was, ‘You bastards.’
“We were straight back to where we were. ‘We can’t ever trust you and we won’t trust you again,’ kind of territory,” says an official.
One No10 insider recalls: “From the Monday following the General Election, the usual state of war with the Treasury resumed.”
Cash for honours … an attempted coup?
The Blair camp saw further dark machinations in the way some party members handled the cash-for-honours row.
On March 15, 2006, Jack Dromey, Labour Party treasurer, released a statement expressing his concern about Labour’s funding, and its possible links to the granting of honours.
He announced that he had “commenced an inquiry into the securing of loans in secret by the Labour Party in 2005”.
News of his statement hit Blair’s office in mid-afternoon, when all hands were being deployed to coax MPs into voting yes on the Education Bill.
Blair was clear that “it was a deliberate attempt to destabilise his position at the very moment that he’d won the education vote, in the full knowledge that the PLP did not like the bill,” says one confidant.
“Jack Dromey chose the very day the Prime Minister was at his most vulnerable, with large numbers voting against the Government,” says another close colleague.
Was Brown involved? Jack Dromey denies this completely. The partisans in No10, however, convinced themselves otherwise.
The linchpin in their mind was Dromey’s wife, Harriet Harman, who was “110 per cent behind Gordon” and, they believed, still smarting from her dismissal from the Department of Social Security in 1998.
No 10 heard that she had been at the Treasury that very afternoon, as had Dromey.
A story reached Blair a few days later of a plan to remove him from office by effectively bankrupting the party and encouraging donors to say they would be prepared to give money to get it back into the black only if Brown was leader.
Blair himself never accused Brown of complicity but did tell him how outrageous he thought the timing of Dromey’s comments was. “Well, nothing to do with me,” was reportedly Brown’s reply. “Then again,” sighs one No10 aide, “it’s never anything to do with him, is it?”
Blair emerged from one meeting with Brown during this period saying: “We didn’t get down to any substance: all he would say is, “When are you going to F off out of here?'”
In a meeting of Blair’s “senior management team” at Chequers on April 13, 2006, the Prime Minister’s future was discussed.
Some pushed Blair to say broadly when he was going to go but the PrimeMinister saw the risks of naming a precise date.
“If we were in a rational world, dealing with rational people, the plan would work,” he said. But “if you say July, they will try to get you back to April, then to January.”
However, with regard to Brown, Blair told his team that he had “agreed a date with him which was the summer of 2007.”
Clearly, he was not going to be held to this date if he deemed he could keep going productively for longer. What would happen after May/June 2007, no one really knew.
‘If you don’t do what I ask, there’ll be big trouble’
At the end of August 2006, the Prime Minister gave a newspaper interview in which he again refused to give a date for his departure.
The media interpreted this as a defiant snub to his detractors and those elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party already unhappy with Blair regarded it as pouring fuel on the fire.
Birmingham MP Sion Simon began soliciting support for a letter to Blair, asking him to step down.
The Brownites tried to make out that the involvement of Simon and fellow 2001 MP Chris Bryant showed that even loyal Blairites were in revolt. The MPs themselves insisted they were “acting independently”.
The Prime Minister spoke to his closest friends on the phone. “If they want me to go, that’s it,” he said to them. The advice he received was unanimous: “Do nothing, fight on.”
The Blair camp fought back. David Miliband went on the Today programme to say: “The conventional wisdom is that the Prime Minister sees himself carrying on for about another 12 months.
“It seems to me that the conventional wisdom is reasonable.”
MP Karen Buck was asked to organise a letter in support of this position.
The other prong of the fightback was covert and involved telling journalists that this was Brown’s coup.
On the morning of Wednesday, September 6, Blair and Brown met in Downing Street for almost two hours.
Although Brown had received the assurance from Blair earlier in the year that the Prime Minister would go in the summer of 2007, he did not believe it.
He now thought he had Blair on the run and, according to reports of the meeting, demanded “bankable” public pledges on both Blair’s departure date and that he would have a “clear run at the leadership”.
Blair replied: “I can’t do that. I can’t stop people standing.”
Further demands by Brown were that Blair rein in his “outriders” Stephen Byers and Milburn: Brown was fed up having his policies rubbished by the duo. “I can’t stop them speaking,” said Blair.
Brown also pushed for a period of “joint premiership” in the run-up to the succession.
Brown’s stance was described to the media by the Blair camp, strictly off the record, as “blackmail”.
According to one Blair ally, the meeting broke up with Brown saying: “If you don’t do what I ask, then there’ll be big trouble.”
A dazed Blair went off to the Parliamentary Committee on anti-Semitism, where he saw Iain Duncan Smith.
“I suppose you’re laughing your head off about all of this, aren’t you?” he said.
The former Conservative leader’s response touched and surprised him. “I know only too well what can go on,” he said.
Blair repeated that he would be gone next summer and they began to explore ways of pulling back from the brink. A party in meltdown served neither.
They agreed to work more closely together and to make statements confirming their positions: Brown’s loyalty and Blair’s departure within the year.
As Brown departed from No10, his grin was snapped by photographers. It was widely criticised at the time as a smirk.
Hopes of a Miliband challenge fade
Despite their new understanding, over Christmas 2006 Blair finally decided he wanted to see an alternative candidate put up against Brown.
“It lasted from the beginning of the year until the point he realised no serious candidate was going to stand,” says one well-placed insider.
To Blair, the key was ensuring that New Labour would be left in safe hands.
When Brown, and those around him, began talking about a “clean break” strategy, he became very agitated about protecting his legacy.
The only candidate with a serious prospect of beating Brown was the Environment Secretary, David Miliband.
“There was a period when several of us thought it was possible for David to win,” says a Blair ally.
Miliband, older brother of Brown adviser Ed, did not rule out standing. He and Blair had several conversations together but managed to avoid arousing suspicion.
All the while he was talking to Miliband, the Prime Minister never put pressure on him to stand.
“Tony was adamant that he wasn’t going to make someone run: if someone was going to do it, they had to want to do it.”
Blair was ambivalent to the end, but in his heart of hearts, he knew that it had to be Brown, because his hold on every part of the party made his victory the only likely outcome.
He also felt he owed it to him. On April 22, 2007, Miliband ended months of speculation. He announced that he would not be running for the leadership, but would be supporting Gordon Brown.
© 2007 Anthony Seldon, Peter Snowdon and Daniel Collings
Blair Unbound by Anthony Seldon, Peter Snowdon and Daniel Collings is published by Simon and Schuster on October 31, rrp £14.99. To order your copy at £14.99 with free p&p call The Review Bookstore on 0845 606 4213.