Journalism

""I have been a broadcast journalist most of my professional life and now contribute my thoughts as a political commentator on a regular basis, principally on the BBC but also on networks as diverse as Sky News and Al Jazeera.

 

My most frequent appearances are on news, current affairs and documentary programmes including Today, Newsnight, Channel Four News and Panorama.

 

I have also appeared as a panellist (the one at the end who nobody is quite sure if they recognise) on BBC1’s Question Time, and as a guest on Start the Week, Hardtalk and The Jeremy Vine Show.

 

I enjoyed a cameo appearance on Louis Theroux talking about Ann Widdecombe’s rubber ducks, although frankly I have no idea what I was on about.

 

I write regularly for a number of publications and contribute frequently to the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' on-line section.

 

I have been a guest columnist in newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Sunday Times, London Evening Standard, the New Statesman and GQ.


You can read most of my recent articles below:

Ed Miliband is so scared of becoming Tony Blair he has forgotten how to communicate

Over the past four years there have been long periods of almost monastic silence from Miliband's office, allowing his opponents to dominate the agenda

"" : September 22, 2014 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Fifteen years ago, in the summer of 1999, it seemed there was only one viable ideology in town. Back when Tony Blair was a young, idealistic leader able to command the attention not just of Britain but the world his "Third Way", which synthesised left-wing social policies with right-wing fiscal ideology. It was promoted with equal enthusiasm by Bill Clinton, and dominated the political discourse at the time.


Today Blair remains damaged goods outside the narrow fan club of GQ magazine and some die-hard "Blairheads". But the Third Way is enjoying something of a revival. It has been embraced belatedly by President Hollande in France and with more conviction by Italy’s Matteo Renzi. Barrack Obama would find little to disagree with in its basic precepts. And while he’d be reluctant to admit it, even Ed Miliband with his "One Nation Labour" frequently harks back to the language of the Third Way.

 

Time then for an honest reappraisal of what it was all about and whether it still has anything useful to contribute to the presentation of centre-left thinking as the election approaches.

 

At first sight the Third Way was an attractive route map. It felt like the political equivalent of the Cotwolds Way. Difficult going in parts, but essentially a manageable and invigorating march with the promise of a warm feeling of accomplishment – if not a warm pub – at the end of it.

 

Sadly, the appeal was short-lived. It came to represent more of a meander than a journey with a purpose So if it didn’t catch on the first time around, why try to tempt people back onto the path?

 

I say "sadly" because in my view the politics behind the Third Way were sound and durable. They continue to constitute part, though by no means all, of what any Labour programme with a chance of electoral success must embrace.

 

Professor Anthony Giddens, the intellectual guru of the Third Way, said it was based on a recognition that "socialism is dead as an economic doctrine”. Instead the intention was to “create a more humane capitalist society that continues the values of the left — equality, solidarity, protection of the weak - and that recognises the role of active government in achieving this.”

 

When given substance this remains the ideological magnet for progressive reform. An economy that offers opportunity and employment to the largest number of people on fair and equitable terms, a government that protects our national security and the personal security of all its citizens, and a fiscal framework that seeks over time to eliminate the inequalities of birth, race and sex is an offer of enduring appeal because it is right.

 

Presentationally, however, Third Way was a disaster, too easily derided as an exercise in smoke and mirrors.

For a start it tried to define itself by what it wasn’t rather than what it was. It wasn’t old Left (the state for the state’s sake – boo). And it wasn’t the new Right (laissez-faire individualism without a thought for the disadvantaged – double boo). It was something in between. And it appeared tactical rather than strategic. ‘Third’ brought to mind the three-sided geometry of the dreaded triangulation. Take what your enemies to left and right are saying and split the difference. Not much principle there.

 

Worst of all it seemed to encapsulate weakness and a failure to make hard choices. It sounded like a fudge, a sugary confection cooked up because the alternatives were too unpalatable for our sensitive tastes.

 

That two gifted communicators like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair should have stuck with it with such tenacity for so long is surprising. In their defence I would say that they were genuinely immersed and engaged with the politics of the Third Way, to such an extent that they lost sight of how it appeared to the majority of people unwilling to follow them into the thickets of the policy detail.

 

And having attended two lengthy Third Way seminars as a member of Blair’s communications team, in Washington and Florence in 1999, I can testify that the detail was copious, the scope wide-ranging and the ambition over-arching. But for those of us employed to sell it rather than to give it substance it presented real challenges.

 

I remember Bill Clinton in Florence telling Alastair Campbell that he “loved this stuff”. Alastair was characteristically blunt. “You’re sick.” I did manage to persuade the BBC to air a lengthy late night discussion on the event hosted by Andrew Rawnsley, but I’ve a feeling the audience may have been confined to the core constituency of political anoraks and insomniacs.

 

Interestingly the Florence meeting was never branded as a Third Way event because the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, refused to attend if it was. So it was dressed up as "Progressive Governance for the Twenty-First Century". And while Jospin then was no more successful at articulating a coherent strategy than Francois Hollande is today, he was right to insist on the name change. Now in the UK, Ed Miliband’s attempts to formulate his own definition of progressive governance have been uncertain and too often unfocused. His enthusiastic response to the election of Mr Hollande, on a programme that was unreformed and unconvincing, was one of the low points. That the French President has now repositioned himself much closer to the radical centrism of the Third Way is telling. But handbrake turns in political direction while in office are never edifying and rarely persuasive. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is much better to set your GPS correctly before setting off.

 

Miliband has put a great deal of thought and effort into doing just that. We are lead to believe – and must certainly hope – that over the next few months we will get a much clearer picture of what a Labour Britain in 2015-2020 would look like. Unfortunately in communications terms it will be too late.

 

When Bill Clinton wasn’t indulging his enthusiasm for lengthy policy discussions, he was a master of election-winning strategy. “Never stop communicating” was one of his early pieces of advice to Tony Blair and it was a lesson our most successful leader by a country mile never forgot. For all their differences, both Blair and Gordon Brown appreciated the critical importance of seeking to dominate the news agenda. Indeed it was Brown even more than Blair who insisted that Labour had to find stories to grab the headlines day in and day out. If we didn’t, he argued, the Tories would. And he was right.

In his haste to distance himself from all things New Labour, Ed Miliband appears to have forgotten – or deliberately rejected – that key component of successful leadership. It was a judgement call – albeit a mistaken one in my view – not to defend the record of Labour in office from 1997-2010 and to allow the Tory narrative on the economy and the Blair/Brown public spending programme to go unchallenged. But to abjure the belief in constant communication was to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

 

I am the first to concede that spin and over-zealous media management did our cause more harm than good. The collective efforts of those of us employed to present Labour’s case as effectively as possible resulted in most people by 2010 thinking the party had achieved less in government than it actually had. There can be no better definition of failure than that. But the remedy for the harm done by communications on Viagra is not communications on Valium.

 

Over the past four years there have been long periods of almost monastic silence from the leader’s office. For the first of those lost years there was perhaps a case for keeping a low profile on the grounds that the public didn’t want to hear from the lot they had just rejected at the ballot box. But in that time the Tory narrative, enthusiastically endorsed with breath-taking hypocrisy by the Liberal Democrats, had taken hold.

 

If Miliband’s objective was to start afresh with a clean sheet of paper, unburdened by the failures – real or perceived – of the past then he left it far too late. If those of us every bit as eager as he is to see Labour return to power after just one term in opposition don’t know what vision we are supposed to be espousing then there is little hope of the public getting it. It is another truism that seems to have been forgotten that only when you have repeated your best lines so often that you’re sick of hearing them is there any likelihood of a largely uninterested public noticing.

 

Communications alone is not a strategy. But progressive policy development without communications is sterile political onanism. Miliband has professionals around him who know what a good story is and would have no difficulty getting it into the media. The froth around Ed’s supposed weirdness is just that, froth. It took hold and became the Labour story for far too long because the party wasn’t giving the media or the public anything more interesting to talk about.

 

If on May 8 2015 we wake up to find David Cameron still in Downing Street, it will not be because Labour failed to develop an alternative programme for government. Much cleverer people than me will have seen to it that we have policies in abundance. But the failure to articulate those policies and weave them into a coherent narrative that is both compelling and comprehensible will be seen as a major contributing factor.

 

The Third Way may have had its faults, but fifteen years on we are still talking about it. There’s a real risk that come 2030 people will be scratching their heads asking, “One Nation Labour, now what was that all about?” Assuming, that is, they can remember it at all.

 

Read the original article here...

 


Rebranding Ed Miliband

With the election a year away – and the prospect of hours of exposure on TV – the Labour leader is bringing in a broadcast guru to change his image. G2 asked a panel of experts how Ed could enhance his appeal

"" : April 2, 2014 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Spin

 

'Politicians are weird. Being awkward is something else'

 

As he climbed into the pulpit to deliver his address at Tony Benn's funeral last week, Miliband might have reflected on Benn's oft-repeated insistence that politics should be about "policies not personalities". He did some early work experience in Benn's Holland Park office and would dearly love that mantra to be true. But it isn't.

 

What is surprising is not that he is now appointing a broadcasting adviser, but that it has taken him so long to get round it to it. Back in 2012, he acknowledged he has a problem with how he looks and sounds on TV and radio: "Somebody who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn't look like me."

 

Occasionally, politicians can remake their image and get away with it. Thatcher did so with consummate success, changing her clothes, her voice, her hair and taking advice from former TV executives on how to use the medium more effectively. Miliband would be very ill-advised to try the same, least of all a year away from an election.

 

Good presentation skills are a pre-requisite for any successful politician. Benn was a master of presentation in his day.

 

TV and radio are both searching and unforgiving, which is why even in the digital age they will influence more voters than the internet ever will. They expose obfuscation, uncertainty and lack of confidence with ease. And they enable the public to make judgments about personality that no amount of media training can camouflage.

 

But authenticity trumps a slick performance every time. Like most politicians, Miliband is at his best when he is himself. The problem lies not in his presentation but in the sense that too often comes through that, either he hasn't made up his mind on an issue, or if he has he doesn't want to reveal it.

If he has answers to some of the big policy questions he has been avoiding, if he has a story to tell about a Labour government that would change people's lives for the better, if he has confidence in his convictions and is now ready to reveal all of those things, the problem will be more than halfway solved.

 

There's nothing so wrong with being a bit weird. Politicians are weird. They'd have to be to do the job. Being awkward is something else. And that comes from giving the impression that you can't, or won't, say what you think.

Lance Price

 

Read the original article here...

 


Leveson inquiry: panel verdict

The spin doctor: 'Cameron has taken an unnecessary risk'

"" : November 29, 2012 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

David Cameron's decision not to accept the Leveson report in full is something he will come to regret. He has taken an unnecessary political risk, but that is a judgment for him and his Tory party colleagues. Worse, he has given encouragement to those in the press who were determined to oppose the Leveson proposals no matter what.

 

Politically, Cameron's stance against any role for legislation sets him against the overwhelming body of public opinion. He's doing so presumably because he thinks freedom of the press from government "interference" is an absolute. If, as seems probable, a majority of MPs in parliament disagree with him, it leaves him all the more exposed.

 

That could be a legitimate, even noble, position to adopt if Leveson's proposals were not so manifestly reasonable in their efforts to guarantee that ministers, governments and the state more widely will have no influence whatever on what journalists are free to write.

 

If the prime minister was taking a risk only with his political interests then I couldn't care less. But he is also risking the public interest in a potentially serious way. He has provided cover for any newspaper or magazine choosing to defy the new system.

 

Some will do it to stand up for a tradition of press freedom that isn't being threatened anyway. Others will do it for more cynical reasons, for the publicity value of being the odd ones out. Whatever their motivations, they can now call on the prime minister as a fellow Leveson-doubter.

 

There will be future examples of the press overstepping the line of acceptable behaviour, we can be sure if that. There will be new allegations before long of politicians seeking to curry favour with those who they believe can influence public opinion. When, not if, that happens, Cameron will be fairly asked: where were you when parliament had the chance to act?

 

• Lance Price is a former BBC correspondent and media adviser in 10 Downing Street.

 

Read the original article here...

 


Leveson is reporting on an issue of trust, not truss. Journalists should face true scrutiny too

An Office for Journalistic Responsibility would be too much. But why don't the press collectively fund a website to offer instant right of reply to those they write about?

"" : November 29, 2012 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Today’s letter by 86 MPs and peers serves only to reinforce the false impression that the choice we face post-Leveson is between giving the press another chance to reform itself or using the law to control the content of newspapers.


The authors of the letter argue that the abuses investigated by Lord Leveson were not a “failure of regulation but rather of law enforcement.” Any new legislation would, they claim, be tantamount to the state licencing of journalists.

 

Those who want parliament to reinforce a new regulatory framework believe that the press has repeatedly shown itself to be incapable of enforcing acceptable ethical standards on its own industry.

Lloyd George said of the press that “what you can’t square you squash”. If he were alive today he might say that “what you can’t trust you truss.”

 

The hopes and fears of both sides of the argument are, it seems to me, misplaced.

 

Trust


Our judiciary, our medical profession and indeed our broadcasters are subject to legislation but they are not told what to say by politicians or governments. They all make mistakes, of course, but they enjoy a large measure of public trust. Any statutory underpinning of press regulation would be negligible by comparison to what they accept without feeling their freedom or independence is compromised.

 

But equally it is wishful thinking to believe that a bit of legislation to back up a tougher system of oversight of the press is going to tame the excesses that have so discredited it. As Peter Kellner argues, it is not just illegal activity that has undermined trust in the newspapers but a culture of ‘intruding unreasonably into people’s lives and/or presenting news in a shoddy, tendentious, distorted or inaccurate manner.’

 

It is not illegal, nor should it ever be, to quote selectively from an interview even if it gives a wholly distorted impression of what the interviewee wished to convey. We cannot use the law to prevent journalists from ignoring inconvenient facts when writing their stories. And we certainly would never want to force journalists to reveal their sources even when we may be convinced that if we did know who they’d been talking to it would cast a very different light on what they’d written.

 

When I was working in Downing Street under Tony Blair a well-respected Political Editor offered to attribute information he wanted from me to ‘senior Conservative sources’. And he did just that. I’ve never revealed who it was. We hear a lot about journalists protecting their sources. Well sometimes sources protect the journalist. And when I related the story to other senior correspondents more than one was honest enough to say they had done the same thing.

 

So if we can’t ensure trustworthy journalism by trussing journalists, what can we do? We can subject them to at least a measure of the kind of scrutiny they expect politicians, judges, doctors, vicars, social workers and everybody else to accept from them.

 

We don’t want a permanent Leveson-style investigation into their behaviour. And anything like an Office for Journalistic Responsibility to sit alongside the Office for Budget Responsibility would indeed be regulation too far.

 

Without fear or favour


While I was a No 10 we briefly published a document called ‘Mail Watch’ which merely pointed out what we believed were the facts the Daily Mail chose to ignore in its so-called ‘news’ about what the government was doing. That newspaper’s journalists hated it and felt unfairly victimised.

 

If the press believe they have learned their lessons and can now be trusted to behave ethically and fairly let them collectively fund a daily website which offers those they write about an instant right to reply. Give any individual who feels he or she has been misquoted or has had his or her views taken out context a platform for saying so. Provide a one-stop place for people to post the facts they think journalists have chosen to ignore. You can even put Hugh Grant on the production team.

 

The importance of a free press is to ensure that everybody, however powerful, is subject to scrutiny without fear or favour. Long may it last. But journalists cannot claim a special immunity from scrutiny and recover our trust at the same time.

 

Read the original article here...

 


Is Ed Miliband hungry enough for power? That's the real test - as his brother David knows only too well

To become Prime Minister, it's not even good enough to say and do the right things. As Tony Blair proved, you have to brim with energy and determination

"" : October 2, 2012 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Ed Miliband is not short of advice as he prepares to deliver his leader’s speech. And not all of it comes from the newspapers and commentators he professes not to read. Kick out the Blairites and return the party to the working classes. Have a public row with Len McCluskey and reassure middle Britain. Cut the waffle and come up with some concrete policies the public can relate to. Try to look prime ministerial. Speak in a language the voters understand.


Much of the advice is contradictory and clearly none of it very welcome. His patient smile and calm demeanor suggest he has no intention of being pushed this way or that by people who may or may not have his and his party’s best interests at heart.

 

Yet there is one man he should listen to. A person whose own experience of fighting an election and losing could stop Ed from making the same mistakes. His brother David.

 

David Miliband has much to offer on policy and his experience and intelligence would add considerable weight to the shadow cabinet. But this is not an appeal for the elder Miliband to come in from the cold. It is merely to suggest that Ed should learn a lesson from why he’s out in the cold in the first place.

 

David Miliband would be leader today if he had fought a different kind of campaign for the leadership. He behaved as if his popularity in the opinion polls and his strong support among MPs and party members meant he had the election in the bag. There was an air of entitlement about him that alienated enough people to cost him victory. In short he didn’t look hungry enough to win.

 

Ed didn’t win just because he cosied up to the unions. He and his team did the maths and fought for every vote. For many early doubters about his leadership qualities, that ruthless determination to do whatever it took to succeed offered hope. If he could do that to get the job, perhaps he could do the same to get Labour back in power.

 

At the half-way stage to the next election, the Ed Miliband we see today seems to have lost that steely resolve. Yes, he has kept steady under fire. He hasn’t let the criticism get to him. He exudes a confidence that suggests he knows just what he’s doing. But he doesn’t look hungry to win.

 

The voters pick up on mood as much as policy, perhaps more so. His Zen-like self-assurance may have calmed his party, but the debate is no longer about Labour it is about the country. He’s right to believe that the messianic quality of some of Tony Blair’s speeches when he was leader of the opposition wouldn’t work today. The severity of the global economic crisis and the failure of any leader anywhere in the world to come up with a quick-fix solution means the public aren’t looking for a savior.

 

But Blair’s frenetic activity from 1994-97 not only grabbed headlines. It grabbed the voters’ attention. Here was a man brimming with energy and determination. Every election Blair ever fought he treated as if he were the underdog. When everybody else thought he couldn’t lose he campaigned as if defeat was a real possibility. You could see it in his eyes.

 

So from this week’s speech onwards Ed Miliband should look, sound and act as if winning is all that matters to him. The electorate won’t hand him the election on a plate. They want to see him work for it day in, day out. He has to show them he cares enough about them to go out and fight for their support.

 

Ask David. Thinking you deserve to win is not enough to ensure it actually happens.

 

Read the original article here...

 


Lance Price: Pull the other one, Tony. You let Murdoch shape policy

Rupert Murdoch was the 24th member of the Cabinet. On many major decisions his views were taken into account

"" : May 29, 2012 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Days before he left office, Tony Blair attacked the "feral beasts" of the media who, he claimed, like to tear "people and reputations to bits". He didn't name names, other than to launch a bizarre attack on The Independent for being too opinionated. But most people would have listed The Sun and the News of the World among the papers with the sharpest teeth and the greatest appetite for human flesh.

 

After he stepped down, many of his political colleagues who had been victims of that bloodlust never heard from him again. Yet by his own evidence to Lord Leveson, the man who owned those titles and the woman who edited both of them became closer friends to Mr Blair than ever before.

 

Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks were powerful and fascinating people and stayed loyal to him as Prime Minister to the end, so maybe that explains it. But did he share more of their world-view than we thought?

 

Mr Blair told the inquiry he didn't change any policy to try to win favour with News International (NI). There was no deal, written or unwritten, no pact, not even an "understanding".

 

In many ways, Mr Blair was more a small-"c" conservative than he wanted us to believe then. So many of the stories, which so often found their way to NI journalists first, about cracking down on asylum-seekers, welfare "scroungers", drunken yobs and the like, were true to his political beliefs.

 

So did Mr Murdoch really have no influence on government policy? Of course he did.

 

Rupert Murdoch was the 24th member of the Cabinet. On many major decisions his views were taken into account. And Mr Blair explained why to the inquiry. If you own papers with a readership that runs into the millions, "that's power". That power – to influence, not to decide – was used most often on the issue of Europe.

 

Mr Blair wanted Britain to join the euro; Mr Murdoch did not. We didn't join. Mr Murdoch thought a referendum on further European integration was essential as a matter of principle; Mr Blair did not. But he agreed to one.

 

Mr Murdoch used any opportunity to speak out against the euro, and had his papers campaign to keep the pound. He didn't care what Mr Blair thought. Mr Blair spoke in favour of the euro only occasionally and very tentatively. He cared very much what Mr Murdoch thought. One man was unelected and didn't even have a vote in Britain; the other was Prime Minister with the largest majority in living memory.

 

That is not to say Mr Murdoch kept Britain out of the euro. Gordon Brown can fairly claim much of the credit for that. But as Tony Blair himself conceded, Mr Murdoch did have "power". Some of that power was ceded to him by Mr Blair himself. We know the former Prime Minister is a man of religious faith but his relationship to media power was like that of an agnostic to God. He wasn't sure it existed but he decided to behave as if it did just in case.

 

Read the original article here...

 


Lord Gould of Brookwood obituary

Political adviser and pollster who became one of the architects of New Labour

"" : November 7, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Philip Gould, Lord Gould of Brookwood, who has died of cancer aged 61, was among the closest and most valued advisers to Tony Blair during his years as leader of the opposition and prime minister. The results of his polling and the many focus groups he conducted were always eagerly anticipated in Downing Street. The two most common questions Blair would ask his staff were "Where's Alastair?" and "Where's Cherie?" – referring to his chief spokesman and his wife. A close third was "Where's Philip?"

 

Gould offered something that every prime minister craves, but few get in sufficient measure. He provided a swift and frank assessment of where public opinion stood on any particular issue at any particular time. And he gave his advice wholly unvarnished. He was never tempted to tell his political masters what he thought they wanted to hear, rather than what, in his judgment, they needed to hear.

 

Above all, he thought they needed to hear the views of those who were not traditional Labour supporters but who contributed to the party's huge majority in the 1997 general election. Winning and maintaining their support was his self-proclaimed mission in life. To those who accused Labour of being too readily influenced by the wealthy, the City, the small-c conservatives and the celebrities, Gould was the answer. He kept the party in touch with the opinions of a much more representative segment of British society, the hard-working majority.

 

Gould was born in Beddington, south London, into a middle-class, suburban environment of the kind that he would go on to target to help resurrect and sustain Labour as a party of government. But it could never be said of him, as it was of Blair, that he might just as easily have become a Conservative. Gould's parents were left of centre and, as soon as he developed a political consciousness of his own, he knew he was Labour.

 

He joined the party at the age of 15, while still a pupil at a secondary modern school near Woking in Surrey. His father had been headteacher of his primary school but Gould failed his 11-plus and left school at 16 with one O-level, in geography. His experience in an education system that seemed to discourage ambition made him a passionate opponent of selection. It also left him determined to get the university education his teachers had said was not for pupils like him.

 

After five years in unfulfilling employment, during which time he was also to be found at many a 1960s political demonstration and rock concert, he returned to full-time education at East London College, Leytonstone, where he took four A-levels. The opportunity to go to university was now open to him and his fascination with the political process was reflected in his choice of course. He graduated with a BA in politics from Sussex University and then went on to secure a master's in political theory at the London School of Economics.

 

At university he met Gail Rebuck, whom he married in 1985. It was an important year for him in many other ways too. After trying his hand in advertising, he added a degree from the London Business School to his CV and founded his own political consultancy, Philip Gould Associates, which he ran from a back bedroom at home. Although he had no clients at first he was already making important and influential contacts. Peter Mandelson, whom he had met for the first time a year previously, was now Labour's director of communications. Mandelson gave Gould his first consultancy contract and a significant political partnership was born.

 

At Mandelson's request, Gould co-ordinated the Shadow Communications Agency, a network of professionals offering their advice free to a cash-strapped party. The left, more influential then than in recent years, hated the results, but the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, desperate for power, supported the new, slicker, more voter-friendly approach to political communications. It came to be symbolised by the red rose emblem.

 

Less visible but no less important was Gould's work to discover what the voting public was thinking and how it might be persuaded to view Labour in a more favourable light. Private opinion polling was nothing new, but the systematic use of focus groups – small, representative samples of a target section of the electorate brought together and questioned at length – was. By the time of the 1987 election, Gould was conducting both kinds of survey at least once a day. Even before polling day itself, Gould's research had revealed that Labour still had a long way to go.

 

He continued to work for Kinnock throughout the next five years while others, including Mandelson, went off to pursue their own interests and careers. The departure of Margaret Thatcher from No 10 and her replacement by John Major appeared to present a great opportunity. Gould knew better and put together Labour's "War Book" for the 1992 election while privately believing victory was unlikely.

He had supported Kinnock as somebody who understood the need to modernise the Labour party. When, in the wake of yet another defeat, Kinnock resigned, Gould too was out in the cold. Many in the party blamed what John Prescott had called the unelected "beautiful people" around Kinnock for the defeat, and in that number they counted Gould. John Smith, who replaced Kinnock, had little time for Gould, Mandelson or the other self-proclaimed "modernisers".

 

Gould wasn't wanted in London but he was wanted in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Bill Clinton was on the road to the White House and wanted to learn from Labour's experience. It was a two-way street and in a few short weeks Gould saw first-hand how a candidate from the left of centre could win. But when he returned to the UK and started to argue privately and publicly for the "Clintonisation" of Labour, he was told by Smith that he was being disruptive. Gould was frozen out by the leader's office, but two of the party's most senior figures were much more receptive to his ideas – Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, and the home affairs spokesman, Tony Blair.

 

On 12 May 1994, Gould's world changed forever. Like many, he was shocked and saddened by Smith's sudden death, but in it he saw the opportunity finally to bring about a truly radical transformation of the party. Gould supported Blair from the outset, despite having warmer personal relations with Brown, who had until then been assuming he was Smith's natural successor.

 

Gould started to bombard Blair with polling and focus group evidence and long memos, replete with strategic advice. The memos got shorter at Blair's request, but the flow never let up. Gould's findings would land on Blair's desk on an almost daily basis for the next 13 years. Blair won the leadership with ease but Gould was there constantly to remind him that winning power in the country was still anything but certain. Gould was always an advocate of change, an uber-moderniser for whom no reform of policy or procedure was too radical. It ensured him a place at the heart of Blair's inner circle, but just as surely condemned him in the eyes of those who believed Labour's purpose and very soul were being systematically destroyed.

 

Gould's memos were intended as private advice, but the public got a flavour of what Blair was reading when, on more than one occasion, they found their way into the hands of journalists. In 1995 the Guardian talked of "Labour's secret strategy", revealing Gould's suggestions for a centralised power structure. His memo had warned that Labour was still not ready for government. Two years later, however, it was, and Gould felt justifiably proud of his contribution to Blair's overwhelming victory.

 

It was never in Gould's character to rest on his laurels, or allow others the luxury of doing so. No sooner was Blair in Downing Street than Gould was working on a strategy for keeping him there. He set up a new transatlantic agency with two Clinton advisers, Stan Greenberg and James Carville, and took time off only to complete his book, The Unfinished Revolution (1998), which became a bible for how to win elections. It later became essential reading for the Conservatives as they tried to do for David Cameron what Gould helped do for Blair.

 

Gould was never a household name but in July 2000 his name was all over the front pages after a memo declaring that "we are not believed to have delivered" and that "the New Labour brand has been badly contaminated" found its way to the Sun and the Times. It was another of his many warnings to the prime minister about the dangers of complacency. His apocalyptic warnings of disasters to come were often exaggerated for effect. His advice was not always consistent. He sometimes delivered stark warnings rather than carefully balanced appraisals. And no matter how dire his forebodings, he always believed the situation was retrievable, so long as Labour showed itself to be in touch with the concerns of ordinary families.

 

His critics, and he had many, believed his strategy amounted to little more than telling the voters what they wanted to hear. Some questioned how much he knew or cared about the concerns of Labour's traditional voters, rather than the precious "switchers" who could swing elections. Thanks to his marriage to Rebuck, who became the chief executive of Random House, he was a very wealthy man, although there was little evidence of that in his appearance or his manner. He could be scatty and disorganised. In the runup to the 2001 election campaign he and I spent several anxious hours searching for a mislaid folder containing the entire Labour advertising campaign.

 

His elevation to the peerage as Lord Gould of Brookwood in 2004 was in recognition of 20 years of service to the modernisation of Labour. Although he was rare among Blair's team in keeping good relations with Brown, his influence diminished after the change of leadership in 2007. The new prime minister had his own advisers and his own pollster. Brown believed Labour had lost touch with its roots and it was easy to hold Gould in part responsible. When, as chancellor, Brown had mounted his most audacious public attack on Blair in a conference speech asserting that the party was "best when we are Labour", it was the political repositioning associated with Gould that he had in his sights.

 

Gould was obsessed with the damage done to Labour by the Blair-Brown rivalry. He knew which side he was on, but above all he wanted it to stop. He could see, even without the benefit of his polling, the immense harm it was doing to the party and its reputation. He was uncertain about Brown's capacity to be a good leader and repeatedly urged David Miliband to run when Blair finally relinquished the post. When there was no contest, Gould's loyalty to the party kept him engaged. As Brown defied his expectations and Labour's popularity rose markedly, Gould became a strong advocate of an early election in the autumn of 2007. He was brought in secretly to help plan the "election that never was" and was appalled when it was called off at the last minute.

 

At the 2008 conference Brown presented him with a special service award, and, while he would continue to offer Downing Street advice whenever he could, he was then already fighting cancer of the oesophagus. It would weaken him physically but never mentally. It took him to a different place personally but never politically. Gould remained loyal to New Labour, or more particularly to the values that underlie New Labour, until the day of his death.

 

Although close to both Milibands, he again supported David in last year's leadership election. And once again he reconciled himself to Labour taking a different path to the one he would have preferred. With Ed Miliband's election, he said the arc of New Labour had come to its end. The new leader would have to find his own way to the centre ground on which all elections are won.

 

Gould's political loyalty was surpassed only by his loyalty to family and friends. To the wider public, he was largely unknown except, perhaps, by reputation. His role was to advise, not to perform, and he was too direct and honest a man to be much good at the performance arts required of any successful politician. When he spoke publicly in recent months about his cancer and of finding himself in what he called "a different place", one from which he could never go back, there was no hint of self-pity. He sought, as he always had, an understanding of the predicament and an analysis of how to respond to it.

He is survived by Gail and their daughters, Georgia and Grace.

 

• Philip Gould, Lord Gould of Brookwood, political adviser, born 30 March 1950; died 6 November 2011

 

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Andy Coulson: did they look the other way?

I was given top-level vetting for my No 10 job. I can't understand why David Cameron's former communications chief wasn't too

"" : July 21, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

 

Some things in life you never forget. And being interviewed on behalf of the security services for a senior job in the same Downing Street department where Andy Coulson would later work, is one of them. The officer came to my home at a prearranged time and asked me a range of questions: about my political affiliations, the state of my finances, whether I drank to excess and what I did for sex. At times he seemed more embarrassed asking the questions than I was answering them.

 

I had been warned what to expect by colleagues at No 10 who had been through the process. One, a woman, was asked if her glance ever went up to the top-shelf porn mags when she bought a newspaper. I didn't get that one. At the end the officer asked me: "Is there anything else you think we should know?" I racked my brains. "I'm probably a member of Greenpeace," I said, "but I really can't remember." "Don't worry about that," he said. "You'd be surprised how many people are." All he really wanted to know, I suspect, is whether I might be susceptible to blackmail. Once he knew I was solvent and didn't appear to have any guilty secrets, he was satisfied.

 

Having passed what's called "developed vetting", I was then able to see just about any document inside government, up to and including those marked "top secret". I saw material relating to defence and security issues, sensitive communications concerning the ongoing situation in Northern Ireland and our relations with our allies. I attended cabinet meetings and secure Cobra (Cabinet Office briefing room) discussions about the Kosovo conflict. All of these matters have a communications element to them and without that level of access I would have found it difficult to do my job. My boss, Alastair Campbell, would have laughed at the suggestion that anything was beyond his security clearance as communications director.

 

Which is why I find it extraordinary, if it's true, that Coulson did not have the same level of vetting as I did in a more junior position. How could he advise the prime minister on handling the media with regard to Afghanistan, Nato, Northern Ireland or mainland terrorism without having access to the full facts?

 

If he were in the job today, he would need an intimate knowledge of British involvement in Libya, security service assessments of the situation in Syria, the likely developments in Palestine, North Korea and Pakistan. Government communications is a fast-moving business. You can't wait for a crisis to erupt – you need the fullest background detail on all the likely hot spots so you can react quickly and offer the prime minister the best advice when news breaks.

 

No 10 must have found a way around all this because, by all accounts, Coulson was very effective at what he did. It is simply not credible that a Downing Street communications director didn't have access to everything he needed to see. The more pertinent question, therefore, is why he wasn't vetted at the highest level. If Coulson gave David Cameron all the assurances he needed before the appointment, presumably he could have told the security services what they wanted to hear as well. Except that it's the job of skilled investigators to probe into areas where even prime ministers may not wish to go.

 

The only possible explanation I can find is that sometimes, if you don't want to know the answer, the best policy is not to ask the question. But what does that tell us about the relationship between Downing Street and the security services? It's one thing for politicians to look the other way sometimes, but the men and women who vet those in sensitive positions should never be asked to do the same.

 

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A cosy pact falls apart

Lance Price says the deal between Murdoch and politicians is finished

The Australian Financial Review : July 15, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Rupert Murdoch made prime ministers dance like puppets

Ex Tony Blair aide describes shock at Mogul's influence

"" : July 10, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The morning after David Cameron became Prime Minister, Rupert Murdoch was seen slipping out of the back door of No 10. Inside the building, one of his former tabloid editors, Andy Coulson, was starting work as communications director.


Even on his first day in office, Mr Cameron believed Murdoch was too powerful a man to say ‘no’ to. Back home in Scotland, Gordon Brown was convinced that if it weren’t for News International, he would still be Prime Minister. It is a view he clings to today.


As first the News of the World, and then the whole of News International, started to turn toxic, David Cameron and Ed Miliband frantically waved their hands through the air above their heads. ‘Look, no strings,’ they seemed to cry. But the truth is that Murdoch had politicians dancing like puppets for too long.


On one level, it was a relationship born out of hard-headed self-interest on both sides. As Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair flew to Australia to address senior executives of Murdoch’s parent company, News Corporation. Before the meeting, he got some advice from Paul Keating, then prime minister of Australia, on how to deal with the tycoon. Keating told Blair: ‘You can do deals with him without ever saying a deal has been done.’ And that is exactly what happened.


There was no paper trail. Nothing was put in writing. There wasn’t even anything left on a voicemail for somebody else to hack into. The deals were unspoken but they were as real as if they’d been written in blood.


Tony Blair wasn’t the first to agree to such a Faustian pact and he wouldn’t be the last. It was the same for Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron.


Murdoch will always back a winner. Convince him you’re going to succeed and he’ll throw his weight behind you. Not just because it creates the impression – falsely in my view – that leaders need his support to get into No 10.


Murdoch is a businessman first, second and last. Playing politics for politics’ sake comes very low down his list of priorities. His son James, now running the parent company’s international operations, including its British newspapers, is no different.


News Corporation’s commercial interests are well served if the man or woman inside Downing Street feels indebted to its titles.


And if the Prime Minister lives in fear of those papers switching sides, the grip of power is even tighter. So Murdoch’s editors and journalists get special access and are hand-fed ‘scoops’, and the governing party – he doesn’t much care which – gets more than a fair wind from some of the bestselling papers in the land.


I saw all of this first-hand when I started working for Tony Blair a year after he became Prime Minister. I was shocked to be told by one of those who’d been closely involved with the talks in Australia, and subsequently, that ‘we’ve promised News International we won’t make any changes to our Europe policy without talking to them’.


If that had been known publicly, we would have been accused of giving a veto over a crucial part of Government policy to an unelected media tycoon who wasn’t even a British citizen.


In 2004, the News of the World called Blair a ‘traitor’ for refusing a referendum on the new European constitution. Murdoch himself approved the word. One of his trusted confidants then told the Prime Minister he wouldn’t get the backing of News International titles in the upcoming General Election unless he did a U-turn.


He did, and within days The Sun secured the scoop. There was pressure from Cabinet to switch policy, but many suspected the deal in Australia was the deciding factor.


The view of those who had flown halfway across the world with Blair was that a deal had indeed been done. If Labour left News International’s business interests alone, the party would be rewarded in headlines and sympathetic articles.


And so it turned out. Titles that had been vitriolic and unashamedly biased against Labour for years suddenly became very friendly indeed. It was a sweetheart deal and, while Blair hoped to charm all of the media, no other newspaper group was as amenable as News International.


When under Tony Blair we were handing so-called ‘exclusives’ to The Sun and The Times on almost a daily basis, the rest of Fleet Street could see exactly where the stories were coming from. Some journalists were annoyed, and would come asking for their own crumbs from the table.


OTHERS were furious. The Daily Mirror, under its pugnacious editor, Piers Morgan, thought it deserved better, having loyally supported Labour through thick and thin. I don’t agree with Morgan about much, but he was right about that.


For those who knew where they stood and weren’t going to be budged, like the Mail and the Mirror, there were no sweetheart deals and no special treats. The Mirror’s political editor, now an aide to Ed Miliband, told me they felt ‘we were always the loyal wife and never the mistress’. But for a fickle lover like News International, it was chocolates and flowers all the way.


In politics, as in life, it’s nicer to be courted than to have to do the courting. So the relationship is not as balanced as it might first appear. What looks like mutual self-interest is actually demeaning the elected politicians and building up the unelected proprietor in a way that fundamentally undermines democracy.

 

Of course, journalists and politicians have always enjoyed a certain camaraderie, often over a drink. And, just as with crime correspondents and sports reporters, political commentators sometimes get too close to their sources. Some even become cheerleaders when they should remain critics, dangerously close to doing the bidding of the politicians with whom they form an unspoken alliance.
Almost always, however, this unhealthy closeness has been underscored by the knowledge that a good story will win out.


That’s why many politicians never trust journalists. They instinctively realise that politicians and journalists must stand apart to fulfil their roles properly. Politicians must be free to make decisions; journalists must be free to criticise and investigate.


Murdoch, aided and abetted by some on the other side of the divide, has blurred that old distinction. He offers the temptation of proximity to his inner circle – with its heady mix of information and power. It can appear like no more than Australian mateyness, with its wedding invitations and horse-riding trips. But there is always an implicit threat that he might turn and offer his favours elsewhere.
The demise of the News of the World has served to remind us that it isn’t right for journalists and politicians to be hand-in-glove.


This weekend, all the parties are rushing to distance themselves from the Murdoch empire. Suddenly they all agree that something has to be done to clean up the media. But both main parties should be ready to admit that they are partly to blame if some at the News of the World, and at other papers too, came to think they were untouchable.


Something is rotten at the heart of the relationship between politicians and the Press in the country. But it goes way beyond a couple of ‘rogue’ reporters or one, soon-to-be-defunct, ‘rogue’ newspaper. The trail leads back to Downing Street. And those in power, just as much as those who claim to hold them to account, share in the responsibility to clean up the mess.

 

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Should politicians ever do a 'Richard and Judy'?

"" : June 13, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The 'Project Volvo' leak showed that Gordon Brown was advised to show his human side. When should our leaders do that?

 

Perhaps one of the most amusing revelations from the emergence of a secret document outlining "Project Volvo", the strategy to rebrand Gordon Brown as PM material in 2006, is that Brown was advised to use "Richard and Judy mode at all times". This was a bit like advising Margaret Thatcher to try a few jokes; it didn't come naturally.

 

"Doing a Richard and Judy" was something Tony Blair excelled at. The phrase was invented for him. We used it as long ago as 1998. It means sitting on the sofa looking like a nice and normal bloke, talking about everyday things and deflecting the rare tricky question with a smile or a bit of self-deprecating humour.

 

It was used whenever Alastair Campbell wanted the prime minister to look as if he understood the concerns of the kind of people who never listen to the Today programme. It meant forgetting the public interest for a few minutes and talking instead about what interested the public.

 

When the focus groups suggested Blair was seriously out of touch, a "Richard and Judy" might be extended to a fully blown round of "Heineken" interviews – meaning we would use Ant and Dec, Songs of Praise, Match of the Day, anything we could get him on to in order to refresh the palates of those parts of the public most political interviews fail to reach.

 

The polar opposite was "doing a Paxman" or a Humphrys. When things are getting serious, and smiling your way out of trouble isn't an option, then you need to take a pounding instead. You know you may not get a word in edgeways, and will have no chance to charm either the interviewer or the actual viewers at home, but it shows you had the guts to go the distance.

 

When you can't see the fan for the excreta that's being thrown at it then a series of Paxman/Humprhys encounters amounts to a "masochism strategy". Think post-Iraq election. It works.

 

Ed Miliband and the rest of the Treasury team around Brown viewed the use of all these techniques by No 10 with contempt. Today, as leader of the Labour party himself, Miliband is said to want to avoid "doing a Blair".

 

To graduates of the Brown school, "doing a Blair" means taking one step to the right of your party and starting a fight just to win a few good headlines. To the alumni of the TB Academy it meant seeing where the public are on an issue and trying to connect with them.

 

Harold Wilson used to talk about "doing a Harvey Smith" – the jockey who stuck two fingers up to the crowd and didn't give a damn. Memo to Ed: don't try it.

 

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Lance Price: Mogul's hidden hand keeps its grip on power

"" : March 30, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Murdoch was one of only three men - the others were Gordon Brown and John Prescott - whose views Blair took into account

 

Three days after David Cameron became Prime Minister, Rupert Murdoch was spotted leaving by the side exit of Downing Street.

 

The visit was unannounced and No 10 declined to give details of what had been discussed. The regime may have changed but the mystery of how Murdoch exercised influence continued.


After working for Tony Blair in the late 90s, I wrote that Murdoch was effectively the 24th member of the Cabinet. Indeed, he was one of only three men – the others were Gordon Brown and John Prescott – whose views Blair took into account on all major decisions.

 

A few months ago David Cameron said he didn't "particularly notice the presence of a 24th person round the cabinet table". Murdoch won't worry unduly about that. News International exercises its clout without the tedious necessity of sitting around the table listening to other people's views.

 

The revelation that Gordon Brown embarked on the disastrous course of abolishing his own, much-vaunted 10p tax rate purely to impress Murdoch and his editors is truly startling. He took a hugely expensive gamble with the tax system, not because the press had been calling for it – that would be bad enough – but because Brown thought they'd be impressed and welcome him into office as a radical, reforming prime minister.

 

Cameron and George Osborne were careful observers of New Labour's relationship with the media. They wanted the upside, the positive headlines and frequent mastery of the political agenda, without the accompanying accusations of spin and dishonesty. To a large extent they have succeeded, so far.

Had it not been for the misjudgement of taking into Downing Street Andy Coulson, a man tainted by association at the very least with the worst scandal to hit the media for many years, Cameron could claim that his press operation was uncontroversial. Most journalists give it credit for playing things pretty straight.

 

There is no Alastair Campbell or Damian McBride in No 10 today. In part that's because the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are so good at communications themselves.

 

Even if they weren't, coalition government wouldn't allow for such a highly partisan communications chief. The Liberal Democrats ought to be a bulwark against the bullying of the Murdoch Empire.

 

Nick Clegg owes News International nothing. Indeed, the company's papers spent decades actively and deliberately marginalising his party and ridiculing its leaders.

 

Had The Daily Telegraph not used subterfuge to tempt Vince Cable into voicing his hostility to Murdoch, that bulwark would be stronger still. The Liberal Democrats are still learning about the realities of power. One is that proprietors and editors never use the front door when they really mean business.

 

The encounters that help them further their commercial interests are never minuted. The nods and winks that trade favourable coverage for influence over decision-making are always deniable. The evidence is usually circumstantial, insufficient to convict but enough to raise suspicions.

 

Cameron was foolish to get caught enjoying Christmas hospitality at the home of Rebekah Brooks, News International's chief executive, so soon after Cable's humiliation. He won't make that mistake again even if she is one of his constituents.

 

Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, who inherited from Cable the decision on whether News Corporation should be allowed to buy the 61 per cent of shares in BSkyB it does not own, has given Murdoch his main prize at very little cost.

 

The formation of the Coalition should have been a serious setback to News International. It's harder to do secret deals with two parties than it is with one. And yet, less than a year after Rupert Murdoch made his clandestine visit to Downing Street, his influence continues to grow.

 

By hiving off Sky News from BSkyB, he is repeating a trick he has done before, extending his reach in return for "guarantees" of editorial independence. He did the same 30 years ago when he bought The Times and The Sunday Times. The guarantees proved virtually worthless.

 

With the Conservatives very much in the lead, the Coalition is content to allow Murdoch to combine control of over a third of the newspapers bought daily in the UK and the country's wealthiest broadcaster.

 

If Gordon Brown was willing to tailor his economic policy to impress the Murdoch of old, what might a future prime minister do to get the backing of an empire whose borders have been extended once again?

 

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Don't blame Tony Blair for talking to a tyrant

"" : February 28, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

For a man who has grown used to deflecting unwelcome questions, Tony Blair looked desperately uncomfortable as he sought to give the fewest possible details of his recent calls to Muammar Gaddafi. His evident discomfort was understandable. Despite his reluctance to accept responsibility for many of the consequences of his decisions in office, Blair hasn't lost his instinctive feel for public opinion.

 

It is one thing for the former prime minister to laugh off the criticism he's received – "that's a change", he said – but quite another to ignore the consequences for future diplomacy in the Arab world and elsewhere.

 

His relationship with the man to whom he once offered "the hand of friendship" calls into question two of the fundamental bases of his foreign policy. The first, that any ally in the fight against global terrorism deserves support, looks preposterous when they unleash terror against their own people. The second, that hugging leaders close even when you may disagree with them increases your private influence, seems naive and unprincipled.

 

It is easy to mock Blair's faith in his own powers of persuasion. He tells us Gaddafi was "in denial", which presumably means he didn't agree with the advice that his time was up. Did he expect Gaddafi to react differently, to go gracefully once he knew even Blair would no longer defend him? Of course not. Was it right to make the call? Yes it was.

 

Whatever his reputation for arrogance and stubbornness, one of Blair's more positive qualities is his willingness to expose himself to ridicule if he thinks what he's doing is right. And while it may look like madness to have tried to deal with a man as ruthless and unhinged as Gaddafi, it doesn't follow that leaving him to his own devices would have been a better option.

 

No phone call – whether from Blair or even from Nelson Mandela, who also heaped praise on Gaddafi when he offered to give up his nuclear ambitions – was going to dislodge him. That will happen only when enough of those around him in the armed forces and in his own family accept the inevitably of defeat and face up to the risk that they too will stand accused of crimes against humanity. But Blair's call was never going to do any harm, except to his own already battered reputation.

 

It is possible that Blair's reluctance to go into detail hid something else. If he was using his influence to offer Gaddafi a way out, some kind of deal that would avoid an even greater blood bath, then he will have done the world a service.

 

The simple truth – a Blair truth that just happens to stand up to scrutiny – is that when evil people wield power and the ability to unleash devastating forces of destruction, it is both right and necessary to engage with them. Supping with the devil is rarely done for the quality of the fare. But it is done for a reason.

 

Both the Obama administration and the British government will be grateful for Blair's intervention. They may have their reservations about his rapprochement in the Libyan desert eight years ago, although neither would say it was wrong to deflect Gaddafi from his nuclear ambitions or curtail his support for terrorism outside his borders. Having been brought in from the cold, the Libyan dictator should have been reminded forcefully and often that international acceptance demanded a consistent and progressive domestic reform programme too.

 

Blair has been out of office for almost four years. It has been for others to press home that message and for them to explain whether they have done so, and if not why not.

 

If the deal with Gaddafi made the world a little safer and deprived terrorists of some succour, it was a deal worth doing. It was never going to turn him into a "benign" leader, despite Blair's unfortunate use of that word in his interview. Nor was it going to lead to his removal from power.

 

It may, however, have had some modest benefits in today's dangerous situation. Some aspects of Libyan society were opened up to western influences and that might have encouraged the pressure for democratic change. The geography and power structures of Libya are less of a mystery to the British government and its armed forces than they were before. But the main task, Gaddafi's removal and his replacement with a regime more worthy of being called "benign", is of a wholly different order.

 

Tony Blair agrees that a change of leadership with a minimum of further loss of blood is essential. He would probably also agree that his own power to help bring that about is modest. But he should not feel the need to apologise for doing what he can.

 

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After Andy Coulson, No 10 should avoid media-bred spin doctors

"" : January 27, 2011 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Party leaders too often peer out into the world of the media for spin doctors when they'd be better searching closer to home

 

The front-runners to succeed Andy Coulson as Downing Street director of communications all have one thing in common. They are, or have been, experienced journalists in either the print media or broadcasting.

 

This should come as no surprise. Not because journalists make the best spin doctors – they don't – but because the shortlists have been compiled by journalists, who naturally look to their own number for the solution to David Cameron's problem.

 

In the short term Coulson's shoes are to be filled, we're told, by the head of strategy, Steve Hilton. Labour would be delighted if the author of Cameron's "big society", which flopped on the doorsteps at the last election and proved to be a hard-sell with the media, secured the job full time. With the prime minister under Hilton's guidance, Ed Miliband would quickly look like a man of the people.

 

The prime minister needs somebody who can help him connect with the readers of papers that appeal to a wider market than the Notting Hill set. Andy Coulson offered this in spades and with considerable success. He's been characterised as the bit of rough who helped pull Cameron's head out of the clouds. But it doesn't follow that another editor or political editor is what Downing Street needs now.

 

Of those who have run the Number 10 press office in recent years, some of the best were not journalists. David Hill brought calm and sound counsel after the excesses of the Alastair Campbell years. Bernard Ingham's career as a Guardian writer was a distant memory by the time he started working for Margaret Thatcher. Sir Christopher Meyer gave wise advice to John Major, although most of it was ignored.

 

Gordon Brown spent three years trying to find a senior journalist to give up a decent career to come and handle his communications. His failure to recruit a suitable candidate helped lead to the shambles of his premiership. But he might have been wise to look elsewhere.

 

Party leaders too often peer out into the world of the media, which they rarely understand as well as they think they do, when they might be better searching closer to home. There is one candidate right under Cameron's nose who has never made it on to any published shortlist.

 

Matt Tee is about the step down as the permanent secretary in charge of government communications. It was a role introduced under Blair to try to repair the breakdown of trust between ministers, the media and the public. Tee is a direct, unstuffy and astute man who understands all three. Brought up in south London, state educated, he's as comfortable on the football terraces as he is in the upper echelons of Whitehall. As a civil servant, he's apolitical but has an instinctive grasp of how an announcement will play politically.

 

They seem to me to be exactly the qualities David Cameron is looking for. There are no doubt others in government who have them, too, although not in such a senior position.

 

Appointing from within the ranks of the civil service has a number of attractions. There are exceptions, of course, but most journalists in my experience have things in their past, misjudgments if not misdemeanours, of which they'd rather not be reminded in print. Public servants, on the whole, bring less baggage with them.

 

They are certainly perceived to be more likely to play things straight. And as Messrs Campbell and Coulson learned to their cost, perceptions matter. They also help avoid another headache. Recruiting from the senior ranks of the media means taking on somebody who has worked for the Murdoch Empire and become tainted if not contaminated by it – or somebody who has been professionally suspicious of, and probably hostile to, News International. Nether would be helpful to Cameron.

 

Taking Murdoch out of the equation would do the cause of good government an enormous service. It would go some way towards freeing Number 10 from the taint of obeisance to the unelected, self-appointed arbiter of political fortunes. The Lib Dems would applaud. Vince Cable might even have something to smile about again.

 

It would be a help Miliband, too, though that won't be Cameron's first priority. Labour's communications director, Tom Baldwin, came from the Times but he should welcome being released from any temptation to compete with the Tories for the Murdoch nod.

 

Tee is due to leave his job in the Cabinet Office at the end of March. If he's not on the prime minister's shortlist then he should be.

 

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He didn't have to tell us about his drinking – but he did

"" : September 2, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Reading Tony Blair's memoirs, there are a few episodes that have me scratching my head and thinking, "Is that really how it was?" For example, in the early years he tells us that "the broad framework on the economy, never mind anything else, was set by me" – i.e. that Gordon was the engine driver but Tony built the train and decided which direction the tracks should go in. But it certainly didn't feel like that inside 10 Downing Street as we struggled day in, day out, to work out what the Chancellor planned to do in his next Budget.

 

Blair was remarkably relaxed about the unprecedented power he allowed Brown to wield as Chancellor. "I did so," he says, "without any fear of being eclipsed or outmanoeuvred." Yet those around him were not so sanguine and, of course, at the end of the day he was finally outmanoeuvred.

 

Politically, the most serious charge that can be levelled against Blair on the basis of his own book is that he knew a Brown premiership would end in failure, and yet he did nothing to prevent it. To put it crudely, having decided to try to keep Gordon Brown in the tent pissing out, rather than outside pissing in, he ended up with him inside the tent pissing on the floor and making it a pretty unpleasant place for everybody else to be.

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Blair is at least honest about the complex mixture of emotions that led him to allow Brown to get away with so much – genuine admiration for his positive qualities but also fear of his destructive power should he sack him. And while this book may be one-sided at times and it has a strong streak of let-me-put-the-record-straight indignation, it is surprisingly brave. There is a confessional tone that I find refreshing.

 

Blair didn't have to tell us that he became a bit too dependent on alcohol towards the end, he didn't have to reveal how clearly he understood the impulses that drive politicians to take crazy risks with sexual infidelities, but he chooses to do so.

 

Nor did Blair have to admit that, in order to bring the two sides together in Northern Ireland, he stretched the truth "past breaking point". It leaves him wide open to the charge that if would lie under those circumstances – to achieve an outcome that he believed to be right – then he would do the same in others. Those who will never forgive him for Iraq will use that against him – and he knows it.

 

As well as frankness, this book has humour. His description of Prime Minister's Question Time as "the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience" is priceless. It helps explain why he put his staff through hell every Wednesday morning while he prepared for it.

 

A Journey will stand the test of time if for no other reason than it's a good read. Those who loathe him won't stop, but those who are prepared to read what he says with an open mind may be pleasantly surprised.

 

Read the original article here...

 

Gordon Brown's gaffe is nothing short of a disaster

"" : April 28, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The PM has just lost the votes of hundreds of thousands of people who agree with Gillian Duffy

 

The media finally have the campaign gaffe they were looking for. Gordon Brown has handed it to them on a plate. He has nobody to blame but himself – although that does not appear to stop him trying.

The PR disaster was immediate and obvious. The clip of the prime minister referring to Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman" has run all day on television and radio as often as the famous Prescott Punch in 2001. His "apology" on the Jeremy Vine programme served only to make matters worse. Brown looked devastated by what had happened, as well he might, but he seemed to want to blame the broadcasters for airing his words and said he was sorry "if I've said anything like that".

 

The images of the day tell an extraordinary story: the utterly desolate prime minister, with his head in his hands, while issuing a half apology – then beaming like a man possessed after spending 45 minutes in private with Gillian Duffy. There is no doubt that the first picture reflects Brown's inner feelings.

 

In terms of damage limitation, the smiling Gordon Brown was almost too much too late. I don't mean to demean him, but he reminded me of my labrador furiously wagging his tail after a good telling off and asking to be loved.

 

By tomorrow night's debate he must try to look prime ministerial again. Gordon Brown must be longing for this campaign to be over, and soon it will be. But before then dozens of Labour candidates are trying to keep the support of men and women not unlike Duffy. He owes it to them to regain his composure. To sustain its share of the vote and maximise the number of MPs it returns, Labour needs the votes of millions of traditional supporters like Duffy. The party has lost not just hers but potentially thousands of others, who will listen to what she said and find that they agree. Does Brown think they are all bigots too?

 

The tragedy is that it need not have happened. Gordon Brown handled the initial exchange well. He stayed calm, polite and made some good points in response to what he was asked. It was a wholly unexceptional encounter with a fairly typical member of the public.

 

Labour candidates – like those of all of other parties – will have encountered voters with genuinely bigoted opinions on doorsteps up and down the country. They are often racist, ill-informed and offensive. Gillian Duffy was none of those things.

 

Yes, Brown is under pressure. Yes, he knows his campaign is not going well. He is even entitled to his private opinions. But he has been around long enough to know the dangers of microphones that stay live when you've finished saying your piece. What happened was a disaster of his own making. He was wrong to blame the aide who set up the visit, wrong to blame the media for using the dynamite he had placed in their hands, and wrong not to use his first opportunity to apologise with dignity.

 

Read the original article here...

 

Change Agent

"" (Australia) : April 20, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

After 13 years of unbroken rule by the New Labour party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it was inevitable the UK general election of 2010 would be all about change. What nobody predicted was it would be change of such a fundamental nature. Politicians of all parties, commentators, academics and voters are having to re-examine many of their cosy assumptions about how democracy works in this country.

 

There’s a good chance that after polling day on May 6, British politics will have been shaken up forever. Those with a vested interest in keeping the old traditions of single-party government and a winner-takes-all electoral system are staring into the abyss, and they don’t like what they see.

 

Under normal circumstances the British don’t take a very keen interest in how politics works. They have been content to cast their votes once every four or five years and then let politicians get on with it. There was an unspoken assumption that Westminster-based democracy– sometimes arrogantly and inaccurately described as “Britain’s gift to the world”–was a reliable way for a fair-minded and tolerant country to go about its business.

 

But these are not normal circumstances. Two factors–one profound, one apparently more superficial–have transformed the political scene.

 

The deeper and more serious development is the almost universal public distrust in politicians of all parties, brought to a head by last year’s massive scandal over MPs’ flagrant abuse of expenses and allowances.

 

The more immediate catalyst was the long-overdue televised election debates between the leaders of the three largest parties, the first such held.

 

The initial debate thrust into the spotlight a man of whom most British voters had, until then, been only vaguely aware. Overnight, Nick Clegg, leader of the centre Liberal Democrats, became a sensation. By the reckoning of most observers, and confirmed by every post-debate poll, Clegg won the encounter hands down. He was swept onto every front page, found himself leading every national news bulletin, and became the most-talked about man in the land. Cleggmania swept Britain.

 

For a party that normally struggles against the indifference of the British media it was an extraordinary turnaround. The Liberal Democrats–amerger between the historic Liberal Party of WilliamGladstone and Lloyd George and the much newer Social Democrats, which briefly lit the political firmament in the mid-1980s –were squeezed out of most arguments between the big beasts of Labour and the Conservatives. The media aided and abetted this by largely ignoring the Lib Dems.

 

One former tabloid newspaper editor, David Yelland, admitted that his old paper, the best-selling Sun, excluded coverage of the centre party as a matter of policy.

 

Well not any more. By handling the first debate with such skill, and by appearing to offer something so refreshingly different, Clegg made sure he could no longer be swatted aside like an irritating insect. The Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, had no idea how to react. Both of their election game plans had to be torn up and rewritten from scratch.

 

During the television debate live sampling of voters showed what they disliked most was the combative point-scoring and aggressive attacks on one other which are a normal function of the adversarial politics seen in the House of Commons. That left Brown and Cameron in a quandary. If they couldn’t attack their opponents during an election campaign, when could they? It was all very well the public indicating that they preferred a more cooperative style of politics but the party leaders could hardly be expected to spend the next three weeks being nice to each other.

 

Since then the very different tactics adopted by Labour and the Conservatives seem to have done little to dent Clegg’s appeal.

 

Brown chose to cuddle up to the Lib Dems. He stressed the many areas where the two parties agreed and made it clear he would find it easy to work with Clegg in some kind of coalition. But this had the effect of making Brown look weak. He was pleading to be loved. One Lib Dem strategist described him as a bit like a lecherous uncle who keeps pestering you at a family party. It was not a very edifying sight.

 

Cameron, who had entered the campaign with a reasonable expectation of winning an outright majority, was unwilling to concede he might have to share power. He criticised the Lib Dems over policy while the ferocious and partisan Tory press went for Clegg on a more personal level. The Daily Mail , arguably the most insidious and effective attack dog in the media, ran the extraordinary headline on the day of the second debate, Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain.

 

That piece of tendentious journalism was based on an eightyear- old article in which Clegg had argued Britain had a “misplaced sense of superiority” after defeating Nazi Germany in 1945. Other papers pointed to Clegg’s Dutch mother and Spanish wife to suggest that somehow he wasn’t really British. Even the fact he spoke several languages was proposed as evidence that he would be a poor defender of the national interest.

 

The second debate was a more evenly matched affair. Clegg looked more like an old-style politician than he had a week earlier. He wasn’t helped by the fact that this time he was at the centre podium being assailed from both sides. He survived and that was enough. But the consensus that only the Tories or Labour could win the election had been fractured.

 

Clegg confronts a tantalising opportunity. His party has advocated electoral reform for decades. Having been eclipsed by Labour as the main vehicle for leftof- centre, progressive politics in the 1920s, the Liberals realised their only way back was to change the system that left them marginalised. In recent years, however, their pollsters and strategists advised them to stop talking about it because it looked self-serving and bored most voters to tears. Clegg’s sudden popularity means “fair votes”, as he likes to call it, is no longer a minority obsession.

 

The Lib Dems are the only major party committed to a fully proportional representation system, where the number of MPs each party gets would be in proportion to the number of votes cast for that party.

 

The Conservatives oppose electoral reform claiming only the existing first-past-the-post system enables voters to throw out an unpopular government at a single stroke.

 

Labour favours a half-way house: a preferential voting system known as Alternative Vote which would to work in Labour’s favour in most circumstances. Some senior Labour figures support a so called AV+ which would introduce additional “top up MPs” to make the overall result more proportional.

 

As the UK enters the final week of the campaign the polls reveal a fairly consistent trend. The Conservatives are slightly ahead, but not by enough to be sure of winning an overall majority in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats have the potential to push Labour into third place.

 

The media are full of extrapolations showing what this might mean under the present system – including a perverse but perfectly possible outcome in which Labour comes third in votes but wins the most seats. If that were to happen the pressure to change the wayMPs have been elected since the birth of Westminster democracy would become intense.

 

The balance may change in the final days. But there is not a commentator, politician or psephologist in the land who can look you in the eye and say with conviction that they know who will be prime minister come May 7.

 

As polling day approaches Lib Dem policy will be put under even greater scrutiny. Clegg’s easy charm and winning manner will not by themselves be enough to carry his party through. He will have to defend parts of his manifesto that are out of line with the instincts of many British voters.

 

His opposition to renewing the Trident nuclear missile system, his support in principle for the European single currency, and his advocacy of an amnesty for some illegal immigrants go against the grain of conventional political wisdom.

 

But much of Clegg’s appeal is that he stands outside the normal way of doing things at Westminster. And popular politicians can win even when parts of their program are controversial.

 

Tony Blair won in 2005, admittedly on only 36 per cent of the vote, despite the massive unpopularity of his support for US president George W. Bush over Iraq. Margaret Thatcher was reelected twice in the 1980s even though many of her policies were thought divisive and ideologically extreme.

 

It was often said of Thatcher and Blair that while they could be headstrong and refuse to listen to views contrary to their own, at least they knew what they stood for. By contrast Prime Minister Brown has From previous page drifted ideologically, unsure whether to represent a continuation of Blairite New Labour or make a change from it.

 

Cameron, too, has tried to adopt the more popular bits of Labour’s legacy–once calling himself the true heir to Blair–without properly defining what his new conservatism really means.

 

In the absence of any clear dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives, the UK is in an uncertain mood. Brown and Cameron appear to calculate that voters would be sceptical of anybody who promised a bold new departure. They might be right. It’s widely acknowledged that dealing with Britain’s massive budget deficit means there is no money for grandiose plans. Thatcher and Blair were risk-takers. Their personalities suited their times. The banking crisis and the high price families are having to pay to bail out the financial system after the crash makes risk a very unpopular commodity in today’s Britain. People are nervous, uncertain about the future, and wary of trusting anybody who claims to have all the answers.

 

The mood of voters has worked greatly to Clegg’s advantage. Neither Brown nor Cameron has produced an argument why they alone should be trusted. Brown, after 13 years in government, might be excused for failing to set the nation’s pulse racing. But Cameron, a smart, modern looking, media-friendly new Tory leader set out to do that and has failed.

 

Brown’s hope lies in getting the campaign back on the economy. It’s astonishing that as the UK emerges tentatively from the worst recession since the 1930s so little has been said about economic management. Some voters, of course, blame Brown for getting the country into the mess in the first place, but his image as an experienced and safe pair of hands is a potentially powerful asset. His best sound-bite since becoming prime minister: “This is no time for a novice”, but he’s failed to play it to good effect on the hustings.

 

So the economy is Brown’s only chance to get back in the game. If he fails, his dream of remaining in Number 10 will be over and he will go down in history as one of a handful of UK prime ministers who never won an election in their own right. Those inside his party who have long argued that he was illsuited for the top job will take no comfort in saying “we told you so”. The prospect of Labour sinking to third place in votes cast for the first time since 1910 could presage a further rapid decline from which Labour might never recover.

 

Cameron’s final push is based on highlighting fears of what a hung parliament, with no party able to govern in its own right, would mean. He has raised the prospect of greater financial instability and a run on the pound. For the Tories this is a highly risky strategy; they are saying “trust us with all the power” at a time when the public have little trust in politicians at all. But if the parties are forced to share power and it works then the voters might conclude that they’d be happy for the experiment to continue.

 

Large parts of the UK– Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland–are already being run by devolved administrations where no party has a majority. But there isn’t a single Tory minister in any of the national assemblies. The fear in the Conservative high command is that the same could happen at Westminster, excluding them from even a share of the spoils.

 

Not surprisingly, Clegg looks comfortable arguing Britain needs a radical change. If he can frame the choice as one between co-operation politics and confrontation politics he will continue to strike a chord.

 

In the past there’s been much talk about breaking the mould of British politics but it has never happened. In may be that future historians will look back on 2010 as the moment when the mould did finally crack. If Brown can keep the Labour vote from collapsing in the next few days, then a Labour-Lib Dem government committed to electoral reform is not inconceivable. If Cameron succeeds then Labour in opposition, and under a new leader, could be expected to form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats to change the electoral system next time around.

 

The most interesting outcome is also the most likely. If Cameron falls short of outright victory but has the largest number of votes and the largest number of seats then he will become prime minister. It’s unlikely he would be able to govern effectively without making concessions to the Liberal Democrats on electoral reform. So a referendum on changing the way the UK elects the House of Commons is a real prospect.

 

It took something as simple as a televised debate to turn this election into the most fascinating contest in living memory. In private both Brown and Cameron are probably ruing the day they agreed to give Clegg equal TV billing. Whatever happens next Thursday, Clegg will have achieved a transformation in his party’s standing. At the same time he has set in train the transformation of British democracy. He will have gone from a little known third party leader to a maker of history, in one extraordinary month.

 

Labour and Lib Dem voters – get tactical

"" : April 9, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Lord Adonis is right – the Liberal Democrats are close to Labour. Supporters of both parties should vote tactically.

 

By making his appeal to Liberal Democrat voters in the first week of the campaign, Lord Adonis has at least got his timing right. When Neil Kinnock tried the same trick in the last few days of the 1992 campaign it looked desperate and backfired. But there is also much sense in what Adonis says – and in what he doesn't say.

 

It is more than just an attempt to try to woo voters who normally vote for somebody else. Not that there is anything wrong with that. David Cameron did the same in the Guardian today.

 

For the first time, the Lib Dems are pushing at an open door in their demands for widespread political reform, including to the voting system. It's nonsense to pretend that Nick Clegg and his party are either equidistant or indifferent when it comes to Labour and the Tories. Sooner or later Labour and the Lib Dems are going to come together to work towards reforming British politics. Sooner, if Gordon Brown can win more seats than Cameron on May 6. Later if he can't.

 

If Cameron wins an overall majority, it will be for a post-Brown Labour leader to try to form an anti-Conservative alliance (formal or otherwise) to ensure he gets just one term. An agreed programme of constitutional reform could begin in 2014/15. If the Lib Dems don't want to wait that long, they should listen to Adonis. Of course, as Clegg says, it is for the voters to decide. But Lib Dem voters can help swing that decision by supporting Labour candidates in certain seats. What Adonis can't say without risking expulsion under party rules is that Labour voters should do the same.

 

Well, I'll say it. They should.

 

Unless Clegg wishes to tell us otherwise, the Liberal Democrats remain a centre-left party. A working arrangement could easily be agreed that went way beyond political reform.

 

I've got Liza Minnelli from Cabaret singing in my head as I write this. "It's gotta happen, happen some time, maybe this time …"

 

Read the original article here...

 

Election 2010: the riskiest time of
Gordon Brown's life

"" : April 6, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Gordon Brown, the most risk-averse of prime ministers, has launched the highest risk election campaign of his career. Above all, Brown hates uncertainty. He relies on the latest intelligence from the polls and demands clear strategic advice from his staff before making any big decision.

 

In this election, however, he is flying blind. His advisers cannot tell him what is really going on in the voters' minds because they just don't know. The same is true of the other parties. That people feel a mixture of disgust, contempt and disillusionment with all politicians is self-evident. How that will affect how (and whether) people vote is anything but.

 

The campaign has started, predictably, with much media comment about the latest polls, but the national trends are a very poor guide to what is going on in individual seats. Voter disillusionment will play out very differently in seats like Brighton Pavilion, Stoke-on-Trent, or Barking – all seats I will be watching closely.

 

This will be the outsiders' election. Incumbency will be a disadvantage for the first time. Brown's challenge is to be an outsider to the system by promising to change it, which is why his words today about a new political settlement are so important.

 

Election campaigns can be dull affairs, but this one won't be. There will be unpredictability and the possibility of real game-changing moments – and not just in the TV debates. The party that shows it understands why the electorate is in such a sullen mood will reap a huge dividend. Brown is going to have to rely on instinct rather than reliable political intelligence from his pollsters. He won't enjoy it, but he has no choice. Presenting himself as a safe pair of hands won't be enough. He's going to have to learn fast how to be a risk-taker.


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Bruiser Brown: a winning strategy?

"" : April 1, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

As Labour reveals its election campaign plan to portray Gordon Brown as a tough guy, our panel of experts give their views.

 

Lance Price: This is no time for a wimp

 

For months, Labour's strategists have been searching for a way to get voters to look at Gordon Brown afresh. The post-Piers Morgan bounce helped, but it didn't last. Now, they may finally have hit on an idea that will connect and get the prime minister talked about in every pub and living room in Britain. That is no mean ambition and it is worth taking a major risk to achieve it.

 

The key to a successful campaign is to seize the agenda and have yourself talked about rather than your opponent. The "fight-back" strategy could achieve that if it is handled with care.

 

The "ultras" within Labour HQ are said to be advocating an actual confrontation, some aggressive finger-jabbing or even a punch. I remember when, as director of communications for the party, I heard that John Prescott had hit a protester. What some (including, if I remember correctly, Brown) thought would be an electoral disaster turned out to be a triumph. But it would be a mistake for the prime minister to copy him.

 

Why? Because Brown is a hopeless actor. If his anger were fake, generated for the cameras, it would backfire. Far better to promote the idea that he might hit somebody and invite people to speculate that David Cameron is too wet behind the ears, and too shallow in his convictions, to be capable of doing the same.

 

There have been rumours for some time that a former member of the Downing Street staff has threatened to publish a mobile phone image of Brown in a fury, looking ready to assault a colleague. If the image exists, now is the time for it mysteriously to find its way into the blogosphere.

 

Brown should then do an interview saying: "I'm not a liar. I meant it when I said I've never hit anybody in my life. But have I been tempted? Of course." The most effective political slogan of the past two years was "no time for a novice". Brown should now seize the opportunity to trump it with: "This is no time for a wimp."

 

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Tony Blair's Iraq War Wounds

"" : February, 2010 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

Since November, in a clinical, modern conference center in central London, the public hearing of an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war has been taking evidence. It has been a very British affair. Chaired by a former public servant, Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry has been marked by polite probing rather than electrifying cut and thrust. Yet for all the lack of drama to date, seats for the appearance of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, expected to take place Jan. 29, are in such demand that a ballot for them has had to be organized.


The reason is not — or not just — that Blair still retains an element of star quality, although he clearly does. There is also a sense that part of his personal Iraq story remains untold. That, despite his evidence to previous inquiries and the hundreds of interviews he has given, he has not yet explained when he decided war was both inevitable and right, nor how far he was willing to go to convince others.


It may well be that Blair's most telling disclosure has already been made. Before Christmas, he told the BBC that he would have gone to war even if he had known that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, conceding that "you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat." Perhaps he will go further when he appears before the inquiry, but I wouldn't bet on it.


The air of anticipation about Blair's evidence is stoked by Westminster-based journalists and commentators, many of whom have either conveniently forgotten their own support for the war or hope to expunge their complicity with proof that Blair hoodwinked us all. At worst, he is portrayed as a man who cared nothing for questions of morality or legality, so determined was he to fall in behind the U.S. But that is merely to replace one fiction — that Saddam was armed to the teeth with WMD — with another.


I worked in Downing Street for Blair from 1998 to 2001, and although I had left his staff before the buildup to war, the Tony Blair I knew had a clear sense of right and wrong based on profound moral convictions. If anything, he saw things as either black or white too often: there were few gray areas for Blair. That contributed to an impatience with those who did not agree with him and a steadfast determination to achieve what he believed to be right by whatever means necessary.


In the case of Iraq, he unquestionably thought the world would be a better and a safer place without Saddam Hussein. It was his view long before 9/11, but his words just three weeks after the 2001 attacks are worth recalling. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken," he said. "The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us." Clearly, regime change was not a concept that Blair woke up to only in 2003. By the time President George W. Bush's determination to remove Saddam by force was fixed, I suspect Blair saw another stark choice. Either Bush succeeded or the Iraqi leader humiliated the United States by mobilizing world opinion against the President, and forced him to back down. No gray area. Any fudge, whether inspired by the U.N. or anybody else, would be a victory for Iraq. So Blair had no hesitation in backing Bush. The alternative was to see the world reordered in a way that strengthened tyranny, encouraged terrorism and menaced freedom.


But Blair knew he could not persuade British public opinion to support military action solely on the basis that Sad-dam should go and that Bush had made up his mind. He had to use, in his own phrase, "different arguments." The arguments he chose were based on Saddam's "active, detailed and growing" WMD program and his nuclear ambitions. In doing so, Blair stretched the truth about WMD to breaking point.


If I am right, Blair thought then — and believes just as strongly now — that his position on the war was morally sound and that the arguments he used to defend it were morally justifiable. It might be better if he were able to say that to the Iraq inquiry next week, but he's extremely unlikely to do so. It would be interpreted, with some justification, as evidence from his own mouth that he lied. Winston Churchill famously declared that in wartime "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." But that argument would not excuse Blair in the eyes of the media or in the eyes of history. His critics hope to see him finally brought to book. They are likely to be disappointed. Blair has become used to being branded a liar. He won't concede any ground, because he believes it really would be dishonest to pretend he thinks he has anything for which he should apologize.


Price was a special adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. His latest book, Where Power Lies, is published in the U.K. in February


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Be angry with Uganda, not the BBC

The BBC headline 'Should homosexuals face execution?' may be insensitive, but it has drawn attention to anti-gay legislation

"" : Dec 17, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The headline on the BBC website "Should homosexuals face execution?" provoked predictable outrage. Predictable but, in my view, misdirected.

 

The anger of those who demanded (successfully) that it be changed was understandable, although as a gay man I was no more offended than if it had read "Did the Jews deserve the Holocaust?" or "Is the US right to execute more blacks than whites?" In each case the question is so outrageous that it doesn't deserve to be dignified with an answer. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be asked.

 

If we want to live in a liberal democracy in which free speech is a right to be defended in all but the most extreme circumstances then we must be prepared to be offended. If I demand the freedom – as I do – to condemn Islam for its denigration of women then I must be prepared to accept the right of others to condemn my lifestyle. I know there is no moral equivalence but I prefer to argue it out in public than to silence any part of the debate.

 

The BBC should be congratulated not only for upholding the right to free expression, but also for exporting it worldwide as it does through the kind of programme that discussed Uganda's anti-gay legislation. Thanks to Africa Have Your Say, the voices of those gay men and women in Uganda and elsewhere who face a lifetime of oppression and even the threat of death could be heard with respect.

 

Yes we should be offended. Yes we should condemn such a monstrous denial of basic human rights. But it is those countries that continue to criminalise people for the way they were born – whether in Africa, the Middle East, Asia or wherever – that should be the object of our anger.

 

The BBC has done us – gay and straight alike – a great service. It has brought home to us, through the responses the question received, just how much ugly homophobia still exists in our own country. We may have legislated for equal rights but this has been a timely reminder that equality under the law does not guarantee the freedom to live without fear of verbal or physical attack.

 

It has also brought to wider attention a story from Uganda that would have remained – with no disrespect to this paper's own editorial staff – somewhere on page 13 of the Guardian.

 

The headline may have been insensitive. The journalist who wrote it probably wishes she or he never had. It made a lot of people very angry. That matters not a jot so long as they come to recognise where that anger should really be directed.

 

The Sun won't shine on Labour. So what?

Governments have been in thrall to it. The media is obsessed with it. But who really cares if the Sun won't back Labour?

"" : Sept 30, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The Sun backs the Tories. Predictable. They do it at a time they think will most embarrass Labour. Of course. The BBC and much of the rest of the media go over the top in their reaction to the news. Utterly predictable. The "news" of the Sun's change of heart isn't news at all. It tells us nothing we didn't know already.

 

The Conservatives are riding high in the polls and stand a very good chance of winning the next election; Labour is suffering a level of visceral unpopularity that is undoubtedly shared by a large number of the Sun's readers. Gordon Brown's speech played deliberately and directly to the very real fears of many of those people, whether on drunken louts in the high street or teenage mums or financial insecurity, but the paper ignores all that and lands the blow it has been planning for months.

 

The Sun is acting purely in its own commercial interests. It likes to back a winner and, remarkably, it always manages to secure a level of payback from whichever party it chooses to anoint that goes way beyond its value to them. The former Tory chairman, Chris Patten, who suffered at the hands of Rupert Murdoch's brutal vindictiveness when he dared to write a book critical of Murdoch's new friends in China, rightly said that News International's backing is available "only when you don't need it".

 

The Sun didn't win it for John Major in 1992 or for Tony Blair in any of the past three elections. It won't win it for David Cameron or anybody else in 2010. Yet Blair debased himself by overstating the importance of News International's support, a mistake David Cameron looks like repeating in spades. Not only did New Labour give the Sun and the Times endless "scoops" over the past decade and more, it also looked the other way as Murdoch continued to pursue his global ambitions with the minimum of regulation.

 

The BBC, which has been running free advertising for the Sun all day, should be feeling very nervous. Senior Tories have already talked about reducing the corporation's reach and challenging its financial security. Cameron has even given hints that he would not oppose the arrival of a Fox News-style TV channel in Britain. That is unambiguously playing to Murdoch's commercial agenda and would be deeply damaging to the quality of journalism in this country.

 

The influence of newspaper endorsements will be less in the forthcoming election than in any other for a century or more. Gordon Brown is right to try to shrug off what the Sun has said today. But Cameron should shrug it off too. If he doesn't, he will simply be perpetuating the mistakes of all political leaders since the heady days of Maggiemania and the tabloids' fervent support of Thatcherism. News International has clout and influence only to the extent that the politicians hand it to them. It would be in the interests of everybody apart from the Sun itself if we all took one look at their front page and said a weary "so what?"

 

Auntie's bloomer over Gordon Brown

The BBC made a serious error in allowing Gordon Brown to be questioned about unsubstantiated health rumours

"" : Sept 28, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The health of the prime minister is a matter of legitimate public interest. When Winston Churchill was incapacitated by a stroke in 1953 his illness was covered up by Downing Street with the help of Fleet Street. It was a scandal but that is not an argument for every detail of a prime minister's health being made public as a matter of course.

 

Churchill was unable to do his job properly for months. Gordon Brown is clearly able to deal with the far greater physical demands of being prime minister half a century later. So the BBC can claim no public interest defence for airing rumours that until now had been largely the preserve of the blogosphere.

 

The BBC, along with all national newspapers, has become enthralled by the new media. Its correspondents are encouraged to blog themselves on top of all their other duties. That is all to the good. But it will be a disaster for British journalism if the wall between responsible, properly researched news reporting and the free exchange of gossip and unchecked rumour on the internet is breached. Good stories are being broken by bloggers and all power to them. But the BBC in particular must never forget its obligation to get its own corroboration and evidence before it broadcasts what is being said on the net.

 

Andrew Marr knocked an ugly hole in that wall and he was wrong to do so. His attempt to preface his question by saying that in America the president's full health record is public knowledge was an irrelevance. He was getting his defence in first for a question that he knew would test the limits of legitimate inquiry. What is incredible is that nobody in the BBC except the programme's editor, Barney Jones, was consulted in advance about whether it would be an appropriate line of questioning.

The BBC has been in one of its period bouts of agonised soul-searching ever since the Marr interview went out. Many of the most senior correspondents and interviewers are also here in Brighton and none that I have spoken to believe Marr was in the right. It is not just professional rivalry or even schadenfreude. It is not what BBC journalism should be about.

 

Lord Mandelson blames it on "extreme right wingers" in the blogosphere, although the allegations had already been referred to in print in the Independent as well as the Daily Telegraph. No 10 had explicitly denied the rumours and while a Downing Street denial doesn't prove the story is untrue it does demand that the BBC have good evidence before running with it.

 

Andrew Marr is a fine journalist and an asset to the Corporation. He is not part of any rightwing conspiracy. Nor, as some of his detractors inside and outside the BBC have been suggesting, is he trying to compensate for his previous New Labour sympathies and demonstrate his independence in anticipation of a Tory government. It was just a bad judgment call.

 

I am all in favour of brave and challenging journalism on the BBC as much as elsewhere. Its presenters should never be afraid to ask questions the politicians don't want to face. It likes its interviews to make news and they frequently do. But this was the wrong kind of news and quite rightly it is the BBC, not Gordon Brown, that now has to face some embarrassing questions about what went wrong.

 

Obama's busy, get over it Gordon

Brown should give up on meeting Obama for the sake of it – they have a good relationship, he shouldn't need empty symbolism

"" : Sept 24, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

In international relations, just as in domestic politics, symbols matter. People remember the images long after the substance has been forgotten. In terms of Gordon Brown's relations with President Obama, a hurried "walk and talk" through the kitchens at the UN will now be added to that box set of DVDs the prime minister received on an earlier visit. No 10 had clearly been hoping for something far less demeaning. But what? A picture of two men in suits smiling at each other. Neither image – one demeaning, the other more authoritative – really means anything. Downing Street has got itself trapped on a hook that benefits nobody other than the headline writers.

 

I don't believe the White House wanted to "snub" Brown. They had nothing to gain from publicly humiliating him and it has cost them a lot of unnecessary time and effort trying to correct that impression in the British media. If they wanted to send a message to Downing Street about Lockerbie or anything else there are much more effective ways of doing it.

 

The real reason no meeting took place is, I suspect, more mundane. The president's time is valuable. Trying to fit face-to-face meetings into his schedule purely for the benefit of the other person's domestic audience is an absurdity and Obama's team are right to resist it. It is highly doubtful whether one more photocall with the president would have done anything to improve Brown's standing at home in any case. Yet Downing Street persists in trying to muscle into the presidential diary regardless.

 

They would be well advised not to bother. The political benefits of securing a meeting are too marginal and the price paid in terms of media brouhaha if the meeting is cut short or doesn't happen at all is disproportionately high. Much better to say that if the prime minister and the president have something important to discuss they will always make time for each other. It has the benefit of being true.

 

What is significant is that somebody saw fit to leak the story. We only know that five requests for a meeting were made because some official somewhere told a journalist. They will have known that it would be exaggerated wildly and that Brown would be damaged. It is the equivalent of kicking sand in his face and is indicative of Brown's weak political authority.

 

Curiously Brown, who also hates having his time wasted, sets a lot of store by symbolic meetings. The pressure to keep going back to ask for one on this occasion came in all probability from him personally. He would do himself – and all future prime ministers – a favour if he could join Obama in calling time on meetings for the sake of meetings.

 

If the prime minister wants to benefit politically from his closeness to the president it will only ever be in terms of what they have achieved together. There he has a good story to tell. Whether in response to the financial crisis, in re-evaluating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or in acting pragmatically to deal with Iran or Syria, the two men do have a common outlook and relationship that produces results. To let all that be eclipsed by a hurried meeting amid clattering saucepans and busy chefs in a New York kitchen is taking symbolism too far.

 

PM behaved properly – but still made himself look shifty

It takes a particularly unlucky – or ham-fisted – politician to do the right thing but still emerge looking guilty. By his handling of the Megrahi affair, Gordon Brown has achieved just that.

"" : Sept 3, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

The sheaves of documents released by the Westminster and Edinburgh governments produced no evidence of a deal, underhand or otherwise, to trade Megrahi's release for oil or anything else, yet suspicions of a cover-up abound.

 

The days have long passed when a declaration of innocence from the Prime Minister would be taken at face value. When Gordon Brown says, "There was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me to Colonel Gaddafi," the instinct of many is still to ask: "So what have you got to hide?"

 

Perhaps a smoking gun will emerge, but I doubt it. In all probability Mr Brown acted with due propriety throughout, and yet he still manages to look shifty.

 

David Cameron's self-righteous nonsense about the Prime Minister's "double-dealing" can be dismissed for the opportunist headline-grabbing that it so clearly is. Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh have an even stronger political incentive to try to direct public anger towards the Prime Minister in London. The idea that either Mr Salmond or his Justice Minister would have bowed to pressure from the Labour Government, or responded favourably to calls to act in the UK national interest, had they ever been made, is absurd.

 

Yet Mr Brown cannot evade his own share of responsibility for how things look. Why? Because he has form and nobody can be blamed for looking at the form book even if what it reveals is irrelevant in this case.

 

The Prime Minister has a record of trying to evade responsibility for foreign policy decisions that might be interpreted as in some way "unpatriotic", even if they are nothing of the kind. Sending David Miliband to the signing ceremony for the Lisbon Treaty and then putting his own name to the document away from the ranks of cameras is just the most high-profile example.

 

He also has an infuriating habit of diving for cover when things are going wrong. Once again it was the Foreign Secretary who was sent out yesterday to answer questions on the Megrahi affair, while Brown read from a prepared statement during a speech on something else. Even now we don't know whether he thought the release was right or not. Answering that question is a diplomatic nightmare, but being prime minister is about answering difficult questions not evading them.

 

In this newspaper Robert Fisk has made a compelling case for believing that the answer to what happened to Flight 103 over Lockerbie lies in Damascus and Tehran, not Tripoli. Whether Mr Brown has any sympathy for that view we will probably never know. If the Libyan connection was indeed tangential then whether the Prime Minister wanted Mr Megrahi to die in prison or not is of little significance by comparison.

 

Gordon Brown's worst offence was probably to believe he could fudge his response to Megrahi's release and get away with it. As offences go, it is pretty mild one. Yet by compounding the impression that he is a leader who lacks the courage to lead, he will pay a disproportionately high price for it.

 

Lord Mandelson will never get the keys to No 10

As Lord Mandelson packed away his holiday clothes and prepared to head for the airport he could afford to allow himself a gratified smile.

"" : Aug 8, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)

 

His political transformation is now all but complete. Gordon Brown once looked crushed when he was told he had “gone from Stalin to Mr Bean”.

 

Peter Mandelson has gone the other way: from Rasputin to Labour's 007. On his final evening he leans on the railings of the luxury yacht as it bobs about in a Greek harbour, sips a cold Martini and glances down at the newspaper. Back at home they are talking of him as a potential Prime Minister. He arches an eyebrow, casts a final look at the bronzed beauty beside him and thinks “Never Say Never Again.”

Yet as he arrives back in London today, Mandelson's holiday dreams are likely to fade faster than his tan. His unique mixture of suave charm and icy menace may have helped him escape political death on more than one occasion but he is now at the peak of his powers. “PM” is never going to become PM — and in his heart he must know it.

 

He shouldn't be denied his moment of self-satisfaction. For a decade the media have attacked him for a multitude of sins, some real, many imagined. He has been written off more often than anyone can remember. For the first time, there are now journalists and commentators who rate his prospects of success more highly than he does himself. But Mandelson is no fool.

 

He has been around long enough to recognise the mood of unreality that so often engulfs Westminster at this time of year. This week he is at the peak of his power. Not merely First Secretary but deputy prime minister in all but name and now acting Prime Minister too. He would have achieved none of those things had he not tied his fortunes so completely to Gordon Brown.

 

In reality, Brown is still in charge in Scotland, where he often is at weekends anyway. Mandelson was no more running Britain from his Blackberry in Corfu than Harriet Harman was with last week's self-aggrandising meetings at Number 10. The Downing Street officials who keep the country ticking over in August regard the “who's really in charge?” brouhaha with amusement not concern.

 

They are happy for Ms Harman to knock off early most afternoons and for Lord Mandelson to stay on the yacht for that extra day. It keeps them out of their hair. If there is an important decision to be made it is to Mr Brown that they will turn every time.

 

Mr Brown's leadership is more secure today than at any time since the botched election-that-never-was of 2007. If the man best placed to take over from him really is Lord Mandelson then the prime minister can sleep easy at night.


To be in the running Mandelson would have to relinquish his peerage. That would provoke a leadership crisis and Mandelson would be in no position to take advantage of it. He would still need a safe seat that could be won with certainty at a by-election. No Labour seat is safe enough for that, least of all if the sitting MP were to make way for him. Voters hate being asked to go to the polls just for the convenience of politicians. And the chances of potential rivals in the Commons sitting on their hands while he tried to get back in are close zero.

 

Everyone is entitled to their dreams. But Mandelson's Lazarus-like resurrection, when Brown invited him back into the Cabinet last October, was enough of a dream come true. It is fanciful to believe he can go any higher.

 

Might he then become leader of the Labour party after the election, when the job is unlikely to include the added bonus of being PM? Again the answer is no. Even if he wanted to, and that seems unlikely, he would still need to find a seat, win it, and take on all challengers in a leadership election. Mr Blair's wish that one day the party would come to love Peter Mandelson has not come true.

 

They may have come to respect him, even to be grateful to him for steadying the ship before it went down, but Labour members, whether in Parliament, the constituencies or the unions, are not about to put him in charge.

 

For the first time in his political career, Mandelson's better qualities are in evidence: his steadiness in a crisis, his ability to communicate a sense of purpose, his humour and refusal to despair. Thanks to the media that once reviled him, he now appears positively avuncular. But he knows that if he were ever to put himself in contention for the leadership they would turn on him again.

 

Everything that could be trawled up to discredit him would be. His history of spin, the deceptions and bad judgment that led to him having to resign twice from Mr Blair's Cabinet and, yes, his sexuality. The Right-wing tabloids may have given up the worst excesses of gay-baiting but they would find plenty of ways to suggest Britain wasn't ready for a homosexual prime minister.

 

As the party conferences approach there will be no shortage of leadership speculation. If Labour's poll ratings don't improve dramatically the question will be asked once more: could anyone do better? But the chance to replace Mr Brown has passed. It won't come again. Mr Mandelson may feel flattered that he's spoken of as a potential Prime Minister but he should be realistic enough to know that it isn't going to happen.

 

Lance Price is a former Labour Party director of communications. His next book, Where Power Lies, a history of Downing Street's battles with the media, is published next year.

MPs' expenses: Is there a saviour in sight?

The public is in a mood to reject all professional politicians. But do we really want a parliament of amateurs – even if gifted – asks Lance Price.

"" : May 28, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Deep within Number 10, immediately outside the door to the prime minister's office, is a large plasma television tuned permanently to Sky News. His staff would love nothing more than to take it down or, failing that, retune it to the Cartoon Channel in the confident knowledge that Gordon Brown, a notorious technophobe, would be unable to get it back to his favourite source of breaking news.

 

They despair at his habit of popping out and then either flying into a rage or descending into deep gloom as a result of what he sees on the screen. Yesterday's newsflash announcing the decision of Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran to stand down as MPs will have done nothing to lighten his mood.

Gordon Brown knows that the political crisis has damaged MPs of all parties and that every casualty is a casualty for Parliament as a whole. Had he been watching earlier in the week, when Sky broke the news that one half of the Seventies pop duo Dollar was "85 per cent on" to stand as an MP, it might finally have been enough to tempt him to throw in the towel.

 

Mr Brown is a serious politician, as we know. To paraphrase one of his rare jokes at his own expense, he is not only more interested in Arctic warming than the Arctic Monkeys, but also in the value of dollars more than the questionable value to Parliament of one half of Dollar.

 

If the public really are in a mood to embrace former pop stars, television celebrities and assorted other individuals well known in the media in preference to the current membership of the House of Commons, then politics as Gordon Brown understands it has had its day.

 

I don't know much more about David Van Day than Mr Brown does, although my partner has the annoying habit of playing his songs at inappropriate times. Sky helpfully informed us that he blew £100,000 on cocaine and cheated on his lover, the flip side of Dollar.

 

Maybe I am underestimating him, but some of the other people seriously considering putting themselves forward as candidates do seem to have a little more to offer. Parliament might indeed benefit from the presence of Esther Rantzen and Terry Waite and the return of Martin Bell.

 

But the clamour for an early general election has to be resisted at all costs. The Prime Minister was right to warn of the "chaos" that might follow an election, although wrong then to define it as a Conservative government. The real chaos would lie in a parliament of publicity seekers and assorted characters more interested in the sound of their own voices than seriously fixing the cracks in our democracy.

 

No change there then, I hear you say. But change there would be, and not for the better. Out would go a bunch of egoists who understand how politics works, and in too many cases how to use it to their own advantage, and in would come a bunch of egoists who wouldn't have a clue how to turn fine ideals into practical policies. Could they do any worse than the present lot? You bet they could.

 

By the time an election has to be called, in about a year from now, the public mood might have calmed down enough for some rational choices to be made. Give Ms Rantzen, Mr Waite and even Mr Van Day, if he insists, time to test their ideas against those of the more conventional political candidates. If the electorate still like them, then all well and good.

 

Martin Bell was an excellent independent MP, although even he was sprung on the voters of Tatton at the last minute. Almost any candidate in a white suit could have beaten one of John Major's sleazier ex-ministers in 1997, so we should be thankful it was Mr Bell and not a former Blue Peter presenter, or the bass guitarist from Status Quo.

 

Who knows what would happen if there were a snap election now and dozens of candidates claiming to be whiter-than-white suddenly appeared on the ballot papers?

 

If some kind of party of independents is to be formed – despite the contradictions inherent in the idea – then it, too, needs to be tested over time. It would soon become apparent that effective government is impossible without political parties that bring together men and women with a similar political outlook supporting a common manifesto of properly considered policy proposals.

 

If we want our politics to work better we need to change our parties, the way they operate and the kind of people they select as candidates. Best of all would be if those voters who are fed up with the way things are working now chose the party that came closest to their values and ideals and actually joined it to help make it more truly representative.

 

The alternative – the "plague on all your houses" philosophy – is no more a solution to the problems of parliamentary democracy than the one tried by Guy Fawkes.

 

I have spent too many years observing politics as a journalist, and working in it at a fairly senior level, to have any illusions about the kind of people it attracts. The caricatures that have circulated in recent weeks have been credible because they contain more than a grain of truth.

 

The wealthy Tory with his pile in the country, with or without a moat, and the arrogant belief that he has the right to govern because it runs in his blood; the second-rate trade unionist who was allowed to stand in a safe seat as a reward not for his talent but for his loyalty; and, in both major parties, the ranks of men and women who graduated from top-notch university to think tank to government special adviser and on to a seat in the House – all of them stand accused, many justifiably, others not so, of bringing the institution of Parliament, which they claim to respect, into disrepute.

 

Turfing out the lot might appear superficially appealing, but the idea that a mass of new model candidates is out there waiting to take their places is an illusion.

 

We already have MPs whose previous careers were in the kind of professions we are more inclined to trust. Former doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, clergymen: you name them, they have all been tainted.

 

So where are the ranks of new, unblemished parliamentarians to come from?

 

Success in showbusiness and the media may be evidence of ambition, eloquence and charm but it doesn't necessarily carry with it either a guarantee of incorruptibility or the aptitude for the kind of hard and thankless work that is the lot of the average backbencher.

 

The truly corrupt must go, of course, and most will. Some of the Sir Tufton Buftons and MPs for TUC North-West might decide that it's not such a cushy number after all. But for the rest, the priority should be to reform the behaviour of the political class, not sweep it away.

 

Perhaps the most charitable comparison is with consultants in the NHS. They may be doing very nicely on public money, they may even be getting every penny they can out of the system, but that doesn't mean they can't be trusted to get on with their jobs.

 

Parliament needs strong characters. And strong characters with an understanding of how to use politics for the betterment of the country often come with a few warts. Our history as a nation would be infinitely poorer without some of those MPs, who would surely fail the tests now being advanced. David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan, even Margaret Thatcher – they were all politicians to their fingertips. Not one of the independent MPs of the same period has made a fraction of their contribution to our country's public life.

 

The status quo is not an option, and nor should it be, but Status Quo? This, as Gordon Brown might yet say, is no time for I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Into There.

There is a void at the heart of No10. Brown must fill it
"" : May 4, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Of all the headlines that landed on Gordon Brown's desk last week the most chilling had nothing to do with his own accident-prone, directionless Government. It was the reminder that 30 years ago today Margaret Thatcher was unpacking her bags at the start of what would turn out to be 18 years of Conservative rule.

 

Brown knows he has a few short months to save himself and his party from seeing history repeat itself.

 

James Callaghan was ejected from Downing Street having never won a General Election. Like Brown, he took over from a long-standing leader, Harold Wilson, who had a string of victories to his name.

Nothing will spur on the Prime Minister more in the coming year than his determination not to be Labour's second Callaghan, the man of experience who came to the top job after a long wait and blew it.

 

Callaghan is best remembered for the Winter of Discontent and his 'Crisis, what crisis?' response to it, even though he never used those exact words. Three decades on, the discontent with Labour isn't being played out on the streets but it is no less threatening. Brown will downplay his own crisis at his peril.

No10 has been gripped all week with the fear of losing control. Control of the news agenda, control of its own MPs and control of the levers of power themselves. The only time I saw anything comparable in my time at Downing Street under Tony Blair was when fuel blockades threatened to bring chaos to Britain. No Prime Minister likes to feel powerless and, when they do, even the most composed can panic.

 

Brown has never been known for his composure under pressure. He throws things - telephones, mugs, anything to hand. He screams at people. In short, he loses it and, if your staff are never sure when they might need to duck, they are not going to give you their best advice. And Brown needs all the advice he can get.

 

From the start, Brown chose to surround himself with a mixture of loyal hatchet men who had been with him at the Treasury and able professionals from the worlds of PR and marketing with little experience of politics. Civil servants looked on in horror as rows and recriminations followed.

 

In less than two years, Brown has lost his political secretary, Spencer Livermore, his chief of staff, Stephen Carter, and now his head spinner, Damian McBride. No10, once a Rolls-Royce machine, has come to resemble an old jalopy with the wheels coming off.

 

Last week it almost careered off the road. Having tried to grab back the initiative over MPs' expenses with a manic-looking YouTube appearance, Brown was forced into retreat.

 

He withdrew the idea of a 'clocking-on' allowance because he couldn't get enough of his own MPs to support it. Another backbench rebellion, on the Gurkhas, saw the first defeat for a sitting Prime Minister on an Opposition party motion since Callaghan.

 

Brown was not short of candidates to blame. The YouTube announcement should never have been made. With better advice it wouldn't have been.

 

The Gurkhas vote should never have been lost. Brown stuck to a tested formula - that you can never be too hard-line on immigration - but nobody around him seemed able to see that this case was different. When a late concession was agreed, Ministers and whips failed to get the message to rebel MPs in time.

 

The failure by the whips' office is all the more surprising because the Chief Whip is one of Gordon Brown's hard men. Nick Brown may be no relation but he's as close to Gordon as they get. If MPs defied him then the PM's own authority was under direct challenge.

 

The whips rely on three things to do their work. Respect, loyalty and fear. In good times, respect is enough. 'This is your Labour government led by the right man doing the right things so vote for it.'

Sometimes loyalty can be demanded. 'You may not agree with us on this one, but the PM deserves your vote so give it to him.'

 

With their backs against the wall, the whips can use fear. 'Vote the right way or else. We know about your affair/debts/ drinking problem (delete as appropriate). Do you really want those nice guys in the Press office to have a word with their friends in the media?'

 

With his massive Commons majorities, Tony Blair rarely had to resort to such unsubtle methods, although many Labour MPs voted reluctantly for the Iraq war for one or more of the reasons above. Gordon Brown inherited a smaller majority and has struggled to impose his own authority.

 

His confident handling of the economic crisis helped for a while but since the Damian McBride email scandal he has lost respect, loyalty and the ability to instil fear. All he has left is the threat of electoral annihilation if party discipline falls apart.

 

He can be confident of keeping his job for the next year only because it's too late to dump him. When his leadership was previously on the line his enforcers faced down the critics. This time around none of those who called for him to go last summer - me included - is doing so again.

 

Brown has to confront his political crisis with the same 'whatever it takes' approach he brought to the economy. That means listening to those such as David Blunkett, who identified a void at the heart of Government policy but also offered a raft of creative ideas to help fill it.

 

There is a void, too, at the heart of Downing Street. Brown needs somebody there with the political antennae to keep him from making avoidable mistakes, the experience of dealing with unpredicted events and, crucially, the strength to tell the Prime Minister when he's wrong.

 

My advice to him this weekend would be to pick up a phone and call Blunkett. Offer him the job of Downing Street chief of staff with all the power he needs to do it properly.

 

David Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher. History doesn't have to repeat itself. Brown doesn't seem to have any better idea for how to avoid defeat, so he needs the help of anyone who does. He has lost his chance to be a good leader - he may just have time to avoid being a disastrous one.

 

Will the last person to leave Gordon Brown's Britain turn out the lights?

The 50 per cent tax increase has reneged on New Labour's central promise - not to punish the rich. A key architect of Blair's victories says the party's over now.

"" : April 24, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

""RIP New Labour. Born July 21 1994; died April 22 2009. Cause of death: drowning in a sea of debt. New Labour passed away surrounded by its family and loved ones. It was survived by a shattered party. Memorial service scheduled for May 2010. No flowers.

 

The obituary writers have been hard at work since this week's Budget statement. The facts seemed clear enough. New Labour, which was born the day Tony Blair was elected leader of the party 15 years ago, had been laid to rest by Alistair Darling with a minimum of ceremony.

The Chancellor sometimes has the look and manner of an undertaker, although on Wednesday he was wearing a natty, colourful new shirt and tie that were highly inappropriate for a funeral. This was a death in suspicious circumstances if ever there was one.

 

Tony Blair was absent from the scene, but New Labour's godparents, Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson, were present and looking suitably solemn. Denial and disbelief are not uncommon at times of great emotional suffering, so perhaps they could both be forgiven for their refusal to accept the passing of something that had once seemed so vigorous, so full of promise.

 

Like so many others, I watched the audacious land grab on the centre ground with awe in 1997. The bold colour posters signed personally by Blair, including one that said ''no rise in income tax rates'', were devastatingly effective.

 

A year later I left journalism and joined Number 10 as deputy to Alastair Campbell. We felt like Masters of the Universe. Blair dominated the political scene more comprehensively even than Margaret Thatcher had done at the height of her power.

 

Blair promised that having campaigned as New Labour he would govern as New Labour and we were sure that if the winning formula could be preserved, nothing would stop us triumphing again.

 

People sneered at the spin but we believed that by ensuring high earners were happy and kept paying their taxes we would be able to do more for the poor than any previous Labour government had done by squeezing the rich until the pips squeaked.

 

It was Gordon Brown who, as shadow chancellor, first stunned the political world by announcing on the Today programme in January 1997 that ''we will leave the basic rate of tax unchanged and we will leave the top rate of tax unchanged".

 

The promise was central to New Labour's appeal to those who had never trusted the party before and was explicitly repeated in the 2001 election, that I helped plan, and again in 2005. More than any of the pledges, signed personally by Blair and endorsed wholeheartedly by Brown, the tax promise embodied the spirit of New Labour and its commitment not to punish success. The successful will certainly be feeling punished now.

 

On Wednesday, shortly after that promise was broken, not stealthily but very publicly, Brown insisted the new top rate of 50 per cent was ''tax for a purpose". The party was still in favour of aspiration, he said, ''we are about helping people make the most of their potential. New Labour, that's what we're about''.

 

Lord Mandelson, who once famously declared that New Labour was ''intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich'' now insisted, ''It's most certainly not the end of New Labour. We are not a high-tax party. We don't tax for its own sake".

 

Those words deserve careful scrutiny. Brown and Mandelson are the most cunning and calculating of all politicians. Neither speaks without first carefully weighing every syllable. ''Tax for a purpose'' – but what purpose? If not ''tax for its own sake'' then for whose sake?

 

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the higher rate of 50 per cent on earnings over £150,000 a year is unlikely to reap much extra revenue – if any. High earners are past masters at legal tax avoidance and are better able than most to move abroad in search of less onerous tax regimes. New Labour eschewed punitive taxation for that very reason, because it knew it was a blunt and ineffective instrument for redistributing wealth. Neil Kinnock had paid a high price for advocating higher taxes for the better-off.

 

New Labour was invented so no future leader would see their head in a light bulb on the front page of The Sun as Neil Kinnock did in 1992, with a headline asking the last person to leave Britain to turn out the lights in the event of a Labour victory.

 

The truth is that New Labour has been in a very bad way for a long time. The recession made the hope and promise of Tony Blair's personal foreword to the election manifesto of 2005, with its emphasis on wealth creation and social justice and the talk of ''an unprecedented opportunity for progressive politics'', sound absurd in its cheery optimism.

 

To be fair, four years ago nobody was predicting a global downturn on the scale we have seen. Brown is calculating that fair-minded voters will accept that promises, even manifesto promises, made in healthier economic times cannot be sacrosanct when the world turns upside down. But it is not just New Labour economics that have had to be sacrificed. Even before the credit crunch, the politics of New Labour were on life support.

 

The declaration of a fresh start based on principle and integrity that had brought the party tens of thousands of new members in the 1990s has long been buried under the cynicism of Iraq and the scandal of cash for honours, to name but a few.

 

With membership subscriptions drying up and wealthy donors locking away their cheque books, the party was forced to fall back on its traditional source of income, the trade unions. With it came the kind of influence on policy that New Labour was supposed to have ended.

 

The giant union Unite has as much access to Downing Street as did the TGWU when it was led by the redoubtable Jack Jones, who died last Tuesday on the eve of the Budget. Jones, who lost his job in the Great Depression of the 1930s, was thought of as one of the most powerful men in Britain under the last Labour government of the pre-Blair era.

 

The unions can no longer hold the country to ransom, as Jones and his partner, Hugh Scanlon of the AEEU, once did, but the threat to withdraw their financial support is like a gun to the head of today's Labour Party.

 

Not surprisingly, the unions have welcomed the new tax on the rich. Brown has always had more of a taste for class war than Blair ever did. In public he would attack enemies like the ''old boy network'' and the ''elitism'' of Oxbridge while in private promising to be a more traditional Labour prime minister once he took over.

 

The campaign he sanctioned against ''Tory toffs'' in last year's Crewe and Nantwich by-election was the kind of crude class war tactics that made Blairites squirm. And Brown is largely silent on the kind of totemic policies that once defined New Labour, like choice in health and education through foundation hospitals and city academies. If, as the party's polling expert Lord Gould once called it, New Labour is an Unfinished Revolution, then its vanguards have been in retreat for two years now.

 

When Mark Twain read his own obituary he cabled the Associated Press to tell them: ''The report of my death was an exaggeration." It is too early for David Cameron or Derek Simpson of Unite to dance on New Labour's grave. There are plenty of people in the Cabinet ready to give it the kiss of life at the first opportunity. For now it lies in a coma; the prognosis for a recovery in the short term looks bleak. And having delivered three remarkable election victories, the chances of it reviving in time to help secure a fourth are receding every day.

 

Master of the dark arts
"" : April 14, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

With one finger on the ‘send’ button Damian McBride has reopened the festering wound of Labour’s reputation for dishonesty and political thuggery. The ugly smears in his email have tarnished not only McBride but also the man who placed his trust in him, Gordon Brown.

 

The prime minister has only himself to blame. Those who know him see much in his character to admire – the austere son of the Manse with a passion for helping the worst off in society. But they also know him to be the toughest, most unscrupulous political operator at Westminster.

 

His MPs and ministers fear rather than love him. They have seen the careers of too many colleagues damaged or destroyed by the tightly-knit gang of malicious briefers who surround him. And few doubt that while Brown may look the other way he knows how they operate and has never lifted a finger to stop them.

 

Brown was brought up in the tough breeding ground of Scottish politics. He entered parliament with a desperate need to win every battle he fought. His life-long ambition to be PM came before anything else. Tony Blair needed only to outsmart the discredited John Major to become prime minister. Gordon Brown had to push aside talented rivals for the crown and plot to unseat the leader of his own party in a palace coup. You don’t succeed in a campaign like that by being Mr Nice Guy.

 

When finally he achieved his ambition Brown promised to do things differently. To end ‘spin’ and play politics with a straight bat. But all too soon the old Brown resurfaced. Anybody who obstructed what he wanted was fair game. And what he wants now, more than anything else, is his own general election mandate. It drives him to distraction that two inexperienced, policy-light Tories with media-friendly faces might thwart him. With little over a year to go, David Cameron and George Osborne are now firmly in the Terminator’s sights.

 

Brown would dearly love to defeat them on his own terms. On policy. On the economy. On health and education. But defeat them he must and one poisonous email has left the impression that any means will do. The prime minister has precious little time to regain a reputation for integrity. It will take a lot more than a few pious words and the removal of Mr McBride to win this time.

Blog standard

Cyber-sludge swirls around the blogosphere, but the government can't afford to get dirty

"" : April 13, 2009 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

It should come as little surprise that some of Gordon Brown's closest aides have been swapping embarrassing stories about senior Conservatives, including David Cameron. It's what political hacks do. Gossip of this kind swirls around Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat offices constantly. The same stories are told and retold in every newsroom in London with equal enthusiasm, whether true or not. Most never reach the public because there is no evidence to support them. Journalists don't commit them to print, and Damian McBride was playing with fire the moment he put them in an email, let alone considering for a second seeing them published on the internet.

 

When I was doing a similar but more junior job to McBride's, I had discussions, some of them with Tony Blair himself, about the sex lives, health - physical and mental - and other perceived weaknesses of our opponents. I knew that at Conservative Central Office they were having the same discussions about us. Accounts of George Osborne's discussions with Peter Mandelson on board a yacht show us that senior politicians will even spread gossip with their enemies on occasion.

 

The late Alan Clark used to feed Alastair Campbell all kinds of gossip about his then leader, William Hague, including rumours he was "cracking up" under the strain. After one such tip-off I was caught peddling mischief myself. I told my old colleagues at the BBC that Hague had been admitted to hospital for a sinus operation. In my defence, Central Office confirmed the news an hour later. I hope I didn't imply there was more to it than blocked nasal passages.

 

Ten years later, the political smear has a new outlet in the multitude of blogs that have started to spread faster than the kind of rashes they discuss on Embarrassing Illnesses. These were once the preserve of relatively insignificant people with little better to do with their time. Now everybody is at it. Labour, drawing the wrong conclusion from the success of Obama's internet campaigning, wanted to add its own contribution to the swirling cyber-sludge. When you are in government, seeking to defend your record and persuade a sceptical electorate of your fitness to carry on, the risks of engaging in the kind of tittle-tattle favoured by many blogs will always outweigh any possible advantages. It is frustrating seeing yourselves slagged off with apparent impunity on a minute-by-minute basis, but getting down and dirty with your opponents is no solution.

 

Derek Draper, the recipient of the McBride email, has struggled to establish the reputation of his site, LabourList. After this he may as well pack up and go home. Blogging is always going to be easier for those attacking the party in power than for anybody seeking to defend it. Just read the abuse posted after any pro-government article on Comment is free and you will see what Downing Street and Labour are up against.

 

For McBride to get involved was insane. His name is associated in the minds of many journalists and MPs on both sides of the Commons with a sustained campaign of smear and innuendo on behalf of Gordon Brown. In short, he has form. It is unlikely Brown knew what he was doing on this occasion, but he is more than aware of the reputation for character assassination McBride and others have earned since they were all in the Treasury together. McBride had to be withdrawn from frontline briefing last year because ministers weren't prepared to put up with it any longer.

 

The prime minister was right to say there is "no place in politics for the dissemination or publication of material of this kind". From now on, anybody hoping to use the internet to boost Labour's chances at the next election will have to be very careful what they say. If that feels like playing the blogosphere game with one hand tied behind your back, that's tough. It's called being in government.

Damian Green's 'leaks' followed traditions of Tony Blair and Winston Churchill

Whether Damian Green is a hero or a villain, his alleged 'crime' is common in politics.

"" : December 3, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

It is a rare day indeed when the arrest and detention of a suspect by anti-terrorist police brings party leaders and senior backbenchers at Westminster together in his defence.

 

For once, rather than competing for the toughest anti-crime rhetoric, MPs have been queuing up to express outrage at the arrest and detention for nine hours of the Conservative shadow immigration minister, Damian Green.

 

Of course Green was no ordinary suspect. He was one of their own. Getting hold of hitherto undisclosed information and using it to embarrass the Government is what opposition politicians are supposed to do. How dare the forces of law and order intervene?

 

Those MPs who weren't too busy denouncing Mr Green's arrest might have been reminded of the well-worn Westminster joke about the irregular verb: I advise, he briefs, you leak.

 

In truth, just about everybody leaks. Those who don't merely wish they knew something important enough to be worth leaking.

 

The trade in leaked information is as old as our parliamentary democracy, and has been used to defend the system as often as to undermine it.

 

Sir David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, isn't the first mandarin to call in the police in the wake of leaks which, he said, "risked undermining the effective operation of my department".

 

But nor can he have been ignorant of the long history of such inquiries, which rarely bring results, or the many instances in which going after the culprits did more harm than good.

 

A junior member of the Home Office has been suspended from duty, but some of the most famous leaks in British political history have come from very senior officials or ministers themselves.

 

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Robert Vansittart, was party to the leaking of information to, among others, Winston Churchill. This was aimed at exposing and undermining the appeasement policies of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.

 

At the very same time, the Downing Street press secretary, George Steward, was giving private briefings to the German ambassador to the effect that the sabre-rattling from the Foreign Office didn't reflect Chamberlain's true feelings.

 

Both men were guilty of a crime not far short of treason. Because he ended up on the right side of history, however, Sir Robert is more usually remembered as one of the unsung heroes of the fight against fascism.

 

It was an adviser to John F Kennedy who noted that "the ship of state is the only ship that often leaks at the top". Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister when he observed that the difference between leaking and briefing was that "I brief, you leak".

 

These days prime ministers routinely leak information themselves or employ others to do it for them.
During my time in the Downing Street press office in the early years of Tony Blair's premiership, I sat in on briefings with senior journalists in which he would reveal, ahead of time, the Government's plans in one area or another.

 

It was my job to do the same on an almost daily basis, and I was paid from the public purse for the privilege.

 

Did I "conspire to commit misconduct in a public office", one of the things Mr Green is suspected of doing? You bet I did. Could I have been arrested? Oh, yes.

 

Yet nobody, least of all the many grateful journalists I spoke to, felt the need to report me to Scotland Yard.

 

Of course the information I was handing out was helpful to the Government. The information Damian Green received was not.

 

There was a time when even the accidental leaking of information would lead to a ministerial resignation. On November 11 1947, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, was walking towards the Commons chamber to deliver his Budget speech.

 

He bumped into a journalist he knew well, John Carvel of the now defunct London Evening Star, and stopped for a brief conversation during which he revealed three or four of the main points that he was just minutes away from announcing to MPs.

 

Carvel dashed to a phone as soon as he could and his paper carried a short report in its next edition. The leak was held to have been such a serious breach of privilege and security that the chancellor was forced to resign.

 

Churchill, then leader of the opposition, helped hound him out with no apparent concern that he was acting hypocritically.

 

For his part, the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, couldn't understand why on earth Darlton would want to talk to a journalist in the first place.

 

This week's pre-Budget report, like every Budget statement in recent memory, was comprehensively leaked by Treasury officials to all and sundry. It is fortunate that Gordon Brown was able to deny all prior knowledge of Mr Green's arrest.

 

Not only did the Prime Minister leak on a gargantuan scale when he was chancellor, but he made his name in opposition on the back of systemic leaking from the then Tory administration.

 

The Conservatives' hands were far from clean. Downing Street, in the form of Mrs Thatcher's press secretary, Bernard Ingham, was accused of complicity in the leaking of a letter from the Solicitor General designed to damage Michael Heseltine during the Westland affair.

 

No prosecutions were brought on that occasion, but two civil servants, Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting, were charged as a result of disclosing sensitive information about the arrival of cruise missiles on British soil, and the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War respectively. Ms Tisdall went to prison for six months.

 

Leaking can have serious consequences, although very occasionally even Whitehall mandarins can see the funny side.

 

Sir Robert Armstrong was head of the Home Civil Service under Mrs Thatcher when he wrote a note to permanent secretaries warning them against tolerating the unofficial disclosure of information.


The letter eventually ended up in the papers and Sir Robert said: "It was very sad it took as long as six weeks to leak."

 

If and when the Conservatives return to office, Damian Green may very well become a Cabinet minister. He, like his predecessors, will expect his department to be capable of keeping confidential information from leaking.

 

He will know that if every piece of paper that crosses a civil servant's desk was made public instantly, the business of government would become impossible.

 

If, heaven forbid, something embarrassing or sensitive does ever leak from a ministry over which Mr Green has control, he will do well to remember this week in 2008.

 

Today he thinks the disclosure of information is in the public interest. In a few years' time he may not.
The argument that some bits of information should be made public while others should not is a tempting one, but fraught with difficulty.

 

The only way of distinguishing one lot from the other without it being a political decision is to involve the courts. And that means to call in the police, which is where we came in.

 

Leaks can make political careers; they can also break them. Too often the attitude of politicians will depend on whether they're on the way up or on the way down.

 

Call that hypocrisy if you like. I'm just thankful that when I was breaking the law my man was still on the way up.

Job seeker's allowances

David Miliband may have boxed himself into an autumn run for the top job

"" : July 30, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

David Miliband is playing a dangerous game. Not because Gordon Brown might sack him for daring to present himself as an appealing and articulate rival for the top job – he knows the prime minister is in too weak a position to do that. But because if he falters a second time, having decided against a challenge last year, then he's unlikely to be given a third chance.

 

His Guardian article and subsequent statements and interviews will be read by Labour MPs and activists as a clear attempt to set out his stall ahead of a possible autumn leadership election. If the foreign secretary didn't want people to come to that conclusion he could have gone off on holiday and put his mind to how he can best help Gordon Brown turn things around. Instead he chose to strengthen his own standing as the leader in waiting.

 

Yes, he left himself some wriggle room, but precious little. He could turn round at the party conference and remind us all that he said on July 30 that Brown was a 'good' leader who 'can' lead Labour into the next election and win. Journalists would scoff, but far more damagingly his many supporters in the party would feel let down and start to look for a new standard bearer.


At times Miliband can be an awkward media performer, but he handled a difficult situation, albeit one of his own making, with great skill. That won't be lost on Labour MPs either. They know from sorry experience how dreadful Gordon Brown looks when he's trying to avoid a question he doesn't want to answer. It's a skill a successful politician has to master and Miliband showed how to do it.

 

The killer phrase in his Guardian article was: "I disagreed with Margaret Thatcher, but at least it was clear what she stood for." In other words, Gordon might invite her to Number 10 and even hint at a state funeral, but I can offer a bit of her magic: strong, clearly defined leadership. Ever since becoming foreign secretary Miliband has been setting out a thoughtful critique of why Labour is doing badly and what it needs to do to show itself to be relevant and worth re-electing. It's all there in his speeches, articles and interviews. He wants his vision to be a challenge to David Cameron because that is where the real fight lies. And the party is desperate for somebody to start knocking the Tory leader around a bit. But it's a challenge to the other leadership hopefuls, too. Harriet Harman has shown she can win in Labour's electoral college, but where is her vision? If there is a leadership election this year Ed Balls, James Purnell and Alan Johnson would equally have a lot of running to do to catch up.

 

Miliband did his chances of succeeding a lot of good today. But he came close to boxing himself in to a fully-fledged challenge. Harold Wilson said "most of politics is presentation and what isn't is timing". Miliband would surely reject such a cynical view, but he knows he can't afford to get his timing wrong. All the available evidence suggests he thinks his time is now.

Dropping Brown is bad. Keeping him is worse

As Labour fails to get its message across the even risks inherent in a change of leadership look attractive

"" : July 27, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Before John Major imploded and Tony Blair turned British politics on its head, it used to be said that loyalty was the Conservative party’s secret weapon. Since 1997 that weapon has been firmly in new Labour’s hands, but this weekend it is legitimate to ask whether loyalty to the leader isn’t a weapon more likely to do self-harm than to damage our opponents.

 

For some months serious Labour people – not the sort to be panicked by a short-term reversal of fortunes – have concluded with regret that Gordon Brown is not only incapable of leading the party to victory at the next election but that he may well lead us to a defeat so heavy it could take a decade to recover. Until now, few have said so publicly, but the result in Glasgow East has legitimised a more honest debate about his responsibility for the party’s predicament. The sense of despair has spread way beyond the ultra-Blairites, and is mixed with regret rather than anger.

 

The prime minister’s analysis of the wider political situation is broadly correct. He’s right to say that problems with fuel and food prices are international. He can fairly claim that the government is pursuing the best policies to take the country through the current economic turbulence. Above all, he is entirely justified in saying that the Tories and the SNP have put forward no realistic alternatives.

 

Had he been able to connect with the people and win their confidence as prime minister, his leadership would not be threatened, but he wasn’t able. To raise the leadership issue is not to “turn inwards”, as some in the cabinet want us to believe. Rather it is to face outwards, look the electorate in the eye and acknowledge how they see us. If voters can’t identify with the leader, they won’t identify with the party.

 

On Friday the prime minister asked Labour members to “have confidence that not only do we have the right policies, but when the time comes we will be able to persuade the British people”.

 

It was an unwise choice of words, inviting the response, “Yes, we believe we have the right policies, but we have no confidence that when the time comes youwillbe able to persuade the British people.”

Taken with the other electoral tests in Crewe, Nantwich and, in particular, London, Glasgow East tell us that Labour is failing to get its message across on a massive scale. That much is blindingly obvious. The much harder question to answer is how the party would be faring under a different leader.

 

A lot of things have Labour MPs waking up in a cold sweat these days, but one of their worst nightmares is to oust Gordon Brown, put in somebody more superficially appealing and find that the party’s ratings are as dire as ever. Given just how hard it is to get rid of a Labour leader who doesn’t want to go, that fear is enough to make most MPs think twice, thrice and still feel paralysed with indecision. Well, politics – as Gordon Brown tells us – is all about making the tough decisions.

 

None of the three following propositions can be proved, but I nevertheless believe them to be true: 1. That under a different leader Labour would not have lost the Glasgow East by-election; 2. That a man or a woman with different personal qualities would be much better placed to expose the weakness of both the Conservative and SNP alternatives; 3. That a change of leader would significantly improve Labour’s chances at the next general election and avoid the prospect of a defeat so severe that most of today’s ministers would never hold office again.

 

The risks inherent in a change of leadership are enormous, but I believe they are less than the risks of carrying on as we are. Improbable though it is, if Gordon Brown were to stand aside voluntarily, he would be greatly admired and thanked for doing so. It need not be a humiliation. He might remember William Hague’s resignation speech after the 2001 general election defeat: “No man or woman is indispensable. No individual is more important than the party.” Wise words indeed.

 

If the prime minister feels unable to make way, then a frank judgment on his liability to the party should be delivered on behalf of more than half his cabinet, thus forcing him to do so. An orderly election for a new leader would then take place, of the sort we should have had when Blair resigned. Gordon Brown could stand if he wished, although he would surely lose.

 

It would then be for the best of the next generation – David Miliband, James Purnell, Andy Burnham, perhaps Ed Balls – to decide whether to stand. Or they might opt to unite behind another candidate, in effect a stop-gap. Alan Johnson has the communications skills and human warmth that Brown regrettably lacks, and would be a sensible choice.

 

If Gordon Brown goes with dignity he will retain the respect of his party as a man who gave it his best shot but was big enough to recognise that modern political leadership requires qualities he just doesn’t have. If he is forced from office or, worse still, leads the party to a catastrophic defeat, the judgment will be just about as harsh as it gets.

Gordon Brown doesn't deserve this
"" : May 14, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Politicians on the ropes, like wayward husbands, tend to feel both unloved and misunderstood. They may know deep down that they're responsible for their own predicament, but more often than not it's well camouflaged by self-pity and resentment.

 

If Gordon Brown is looking around for somebody else to blame this week then he has an obvious target in the latest batch of memoir writers. He is notoriously thin-skinned about how he's portrayed in books of any kind, but the Prime Minister would do better to look much closer to home for the author of his misfortunes.

 

It happens to be true, for all that, that politicians as a breed are both unloved and very often misunderstood. One common misconception is that despite their superficial smiles they all loathe each other and can't wait to exact revenge for previous betrayals, real or imagined.

 

When it was put to Ernie Bevin, Labour's post-war Foreign Secretary, that his troublesome colleague Aneurin Bevan was his own worst enemy, he famously replied, "Not while I'm alive 'e ain't". But the books by John Prescott, Cherie Blair and Michael Levy are anything but vengeful. Indeed Mr Brown probably feels lucky to have got off so lightly.

 

Few people write books like this to damage anybody else. The reasons are complex and varied, although vanity is certainly among them. Having written the first insider's account of the Blair years, The Spin Doctor's Diary, I know how angry and let down former colleagues can feel.

 

Some people, not many, still refuse to speak to me, although I bet they would be hard pushed to remember anything I wrote to cause lasting offence. And, of course, I smile when some of my critics produce memoirs of their own.

 

Frequently Gordon Brown came across in less than flattering terms in my book, as he does in those that have appeared more recently, not because I had any scores to settle - I didn't - but because the way he behaved as Chancellor had such a profound impact on the lives of everybody in and around the centre of power.

 

When Prescott calls Brown ''frustrating, annoying, bewildering and prickly" that's not the half of it, but he's not telling us anything new.

 

Indeed it might have been better for the Prime Minister if John Prescott or Cherie Blair had come out with all guns blazing. Had they really gone over the top they would have engendered some sympathy for Mr Brown on the grounds that he couldn't possibly be as bad as he'd been portrayed. By pulling their punches (not something John Prescott is famous for) they may have hurt him more.

 

I'm not being perverse for the sake of it when I say this, but Gordon Brown does deserve some sympathy. Yes, he can be every bit as difficult as all these memoirs suggest. But no, he's not as bad a Prime Minister as the conventional wisdom now dictates. Far from it. His appalling poll ratings, especially those comparing his qualities with those of David Cameron, are a cruel underestimation both of his talents and his competence.

 

The same was true of John Major and the danger for Brown is that, like Major before him, he's reached such a low ebb that he will no longer be given credit for anything he does right. It was a fate that befell Major after he'd won an election. It has hit Brown much more quickly and with more brutal force.

 

The reasons for his predicament are revealed in the memoirs from the Blair years, whether the authors pull their punches or not. John Major was a man without a past, or at least with only a very recent past. Gordon Brown has a very long past indeed and it's littered with the bloodied but breathing bodies of those he crossed on his way to the job he wanted rather too much.

 

Some, such as Frank Field, had cherished but expensive policies vetoed by the then chancellor. Others, like Mr Prescott, remember his intolerable bad manners with supposed colleagues. A few, such as Lord Levy, question his veracity. Rather more, like Cherie Blair, resent his failure to support her husband at crucial moments.

 

Many, many others who will probably never write books just recall him being hurtfully rude or dismissive for no good reason. As a result he has very little loyalty in the bank and at times he must wish he'd retained a bit more of it. It would have earned some useful interest.

 

So we are left with the impression of a man whose bullying and tantrums and sulks and scheming were all designed to secure him a job in which he's now floundering. To be fair once more, he often had good reasons as Chancellor to say no and he made enemies in the interests of the Labour Party as well as his own.

 

But it doesn't matter how fair the impression is. People have a right to ask why, if he wanted the job so very badly, he can't now give us a better idea of what he wants to do with it. He fought a long guerrilla war. He should have had enough time in the process to work out what do when he won it.

 

A decisive final battle would have helped. When some of us argued that an election for the leadership would be in Gordon Brown's interests as well as the party's we meant it. It wasn't just a ruse to give us somebody else to vote for. Not one single Labour MP or party member voted for Mr Brown as leader. He'd have a far greater command over their loyalty if they had.

 

And yet even now, perhaps especially now, they are willing to forget all that has gone before and unite behind him to keep the Tories from coming back.

 

Unlike John Major he doesn't lead a divided party, but he does lead a dispirited one. Labour members don't lack the will to win again, but they are fast losing confidence in their chances of doing so. Unless Gordon Brown can break out from under the prism of failure through which his leadership is now viewed then the fear of defeat at the next election will turn into a sullen acceptance of its inevitability. And if that happens then the authors of the next batch of memoirs may well feel less of a need to tone down their reminiscences.

He's got to love the spotlight,
or at least look as if he does
Lance Price, former Labour party director of communications, on yesterday's conference speech
"" : March 29, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Even the Prime Minister must have known this was a dreadful speech. It was leaden, badly delivered, had nothing new to impart, and came over terribly on the box. Some brave soul is going to have to sit him down and tell him it's time to get his act together.

 

Because good speech-making is, in part, an act. We know he doesn't like the showbiz side of politics. Not Flash, Just Gordon is a great advertising line, but he's going to have to learn to love the spotlight occasionally, or at least look as if he does.

 

It wasn't all his fault. I'm sure he didn't suggest wandering from side to side of the stage in a vaguely Cameronesque way. Unfortunately, because the camera followed him, it looked as if the platform party were on wheels being pushed first one way and then the other while he stayed centre stage. As soon as Wendy Alexander, the embattled Scottish party leader, heaved into view, Gordon would turn and she'd be wheeled out of shot again pronto.

 

Then, just as I was thinking the speech needed more light and shade, the prime minister obliged by walking too far in one direction and almost disappearing into shadow.

 

The perambulations led him to make silly mistakes too. Of the heroes of the Glasgow bombing he said, "they will always be in our debt". Overall there was too much declamatory language and very little to engage a sceptical or even impartial listener. He clearly didn't have anything new to impart - but with a better script he could have at least put over old ideas in a fresh way.

 

When Brown is on a mission his oratory is magnificent. Yesterday he didn't seem to know where he was going. Unless he makes some big improvement soon, people will start to conclude it's not just his speech-making but his government that's lost its way.

The unknown know-it-all
Chief of staff Jonathan Powell was perhaps Tony Blair's greatest asset, which only makes his regrets about unfinished business the more revealing
"" : March 15, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jonathan Powell is that, after ten years as the prime minister's chief of staff, he was virtually unknown outside the tightest circles of Whitehall's inner core. If he'd had the time, which he clearly didn't, he could have walked into any pub in Britain and enjoyed a quiet pint without anybody raising an eyebrow.

 

Powell once said that he thought he'd "grown like" Tony Blair as a result of a decade and more working in such close proximity with the man, but he never shared his boss's love of publicity. Which is one reason why he was so good at his job and managed, while so many others fell by the wayside, to stay the distance.

 

And because he kept in the shadows for so long, what he has to say now is all the more fascinating. Not only did he survive, he did so with an ability to look back with a wry smile. His appraisal of Blair's strengths and weaknesses is characteristically frank.

 

His frustration with some of the latter is understated, reflecting the intense loyalty he clearly still feels for the man. The prime minister, he says, could be a "flibbertigibbet". Which is to say that his mind could race on to the next big challenge in his sights long before the loose ends of his last initiative had come close to being tied up.

 

Very often, it was Jonathan Powell himself who paid the price for this. He was Blair's progress-chaser, having to keep tabs on everything, demanding to know what had been done to implement orders long after the PM had forgotten issuing them.

 

Powell bravely defends the business of "sofa government", rightly pointing out that it doesn't matter where a decision is made so long as it is the right one. He is perhaps too modest to point out that it fell to him to impose some discipline on a system that left those of us lucky enough to get a seat on the sofa pretty clear what was on Tony Blair's mind but not at all sure what we were supposed to do about it.

 

Blair's habit of producing hand written drafts of speeches, often at the last minute, is accurate too. But it wasn't just the civil servants and secretaries who suffered. The reaction of the ladies of the WI to one Blair-inspired oration showed how it could occasionally go horribly wrong, although usually he had a better instinctive sense of the mood of the nation at any given time than most of his staff.

 

Interestingly, Powell backs Blair for president of Europe not because he would be good for the European Union but because he recognises Europe as one of the great pieces of unfinished business from the Blair years. As prime minister, Blair dearly wanted to make Britain love the EU, and preferably the Euro too, but failed on both counts. Why? Because, as Powell says, the first term, when Blair had the popularity and power to achieve so much, lacked boldness. By the time the PM really discovered the courage to go with his convictions, it was of necessity directed elsewhere.

 

Powell puts his finger on the dilemma at the heart of the decade he spent lashed to Tony Blair. Winning, winning and winning again was the priority. The fear of repeating the mistakes of previous Labour governments was always haunting. But by having one eye on the future and one on the past, it could be very difficult to focus properly on the present.

 

That as much was achieved under those constraints as it was is, to a large extent, down to Jonathan Powell. Tony Blair was lucky to have him.

Labour must put on a new face
or face the consequences.
Lance Price says Wendy Alexander must act quickly to show she has what it takes to lift Labour out of the doldrums or she’ll never be First Minister.
"" : February 17, 2008 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Try as I might, and believe me I’ve tried, I can’t think of a political leader who’s got off to a worse start than Wendy Alexander. Even the hapless Ian Duncan-Smith (remember him?) had a brief honeymoon as Tory leader. Gordon Brown certainly enjoyed one as Prime Minister, although he’d probably have trouble now remembering how good it felt.

 

Far from enjoying a honeymoon, Wendy has taken such a battering that she could be forgiven for wondering whether an early divorce from the party leadership might not be best for her and best for her party. But she’s decided she wants to stick with it and I happen to believe she’s right, though there are plenty of people who’d be happy to see her go.

 

Alex Salmond for one. He says he wants to stay in his job and, as a result, wants Wendy to stay in hers but don’t believe a word of it. He knows she’s got guts and has what it takes to give him a run for his money if she can only put her terrible first months behind her. He’d be delighted if she went, not just because her scalp would be a terrible blow to Labour but because he knows there’s nobody of her calibre and experience around to replace her.

 

So while Labour needs to change and change fast, a change of leadership isn’t the answer. It would be perverse of her to go after the Electoral Commission found largely in her favour. And while the Sunday Times revelations about undercover fundraising back in 2002 are serious and have to be addressed they don’t amount to a resignation issue. For once though Alex Salmond is right – the affair has been hugely damaging to Labour.

 

At the very least anybody who thinks they were deceived or defrauded when they attended events hosted by the Scottish Industry Forum should be given their money back. It would be the right thing to do both morally and politically. What’s more it would show just how many people who supported the SIF, set up as the Sunday Times accurately reported “to improve relations between new Labour and business”, were shocked by the revelation that their money ended up funding the party.

 

Refunding money wrongly received can only ever be a start. If Labour is going to present a new face to the electorate it needs to go much further. ‘Change’ is the word all politicians like to use at the moment and it’s been uttered so often of late that it’s in danger of becoming meaningless. Wendy Alexander has to show that there’s real substance behind the promise of change. She must show that both she and her party have changed and, above all, that she understands why politics can’t go on as it has before.

 

Labour had a strangle-hold on power in Scotland for so long that it became arrogant and complacent. It didn’t take the SNP seriously and saw Alex Salmond installed as First Minister as a result. Now it acts as if last year’s defeat was an aberration and that the voters will see the error of their ways sooner rather than later and restore the party to its rightful position in government.

 

Parties that underestimate their opponents and refuse to change to meet changing times court disaster. In the first quarter of the twentieth century the Liberal Party failed to recognise the threat from Labour, then as now led by many a determined Scot, lost office and never regained it. They allowed history to overtake them rather than going through the painful process of facing up to why the electorate had rejected them. And, for what it’s worth, they’d been caught out taking donations far dodgier than anything we’re talking about today. Labour in Scotland could go the same way.

 

The risk of being punished for the arrogance of power is greater now that it was a century ago. People are far less likely to identify themselves as life-long supporters of any party now than they were then. The days when Labour could take it for granted that vast swathes of people would turn out to vote for them at election time come are gone for good.

 

Wendy Alexander is at a crossroads both politically and personally. She rose through the party’s ranks under the old days of Labour dominance and machine politics, but she’s young enough to recognise that a new generation wants a new way of doing things. The question is whether she has it in her to lead Labour in a genuinely new direction.

 

On the party funding front that means no longer constantly operating at the margins of what the law allows. Every donation from a questionable source, every cheque that is just a few pence below the limits so it doesn’t have to be declared simply reinforces the impression that Labour is dodgy. It’s no good claiming the letter of the law has been obeyed when the public want the spirit to be embraced too.

Labour should make it clear there will be no more front organisations for fund-raising and that in future it will err on the side of over-disclosure. A voluntary pledge to declare any donation that comes within 75% of the legal limit would go some way to restoring confidence.

 

Then Labour needs to take a long hard look at how to reconnect with the electorate. I have just returned from the US where Barak Obama has found the language and techniques to connect with huge numbers of people who had given up on politics as usual. In doing so he’s made Hilary Clinton look like a creature of the past. A lot of it is rhetoric and he runs the risk of building up expectations only to dash them as Tony Blair did for many in Britain. But he’s showing that cynicism about politics can be overcome and that the promise of a fresh start will get a loud cry of “yes please” is response.

 

Wendy Alexander is never going to be Scotland’s Obama but she’s two years younger than him and could yet show herself capable of meeting the challenges of the new politics. If she can’t then sooner or later she will have to make way for somebody who can.

This will hurt: Tony Blair handled crises better
In his rush to draw a line under the Blair era of funding scandals, spin and haemorrhaging trust, Gordon Brown clearly decided he was not going "to do a Tony". This week is proving the toughest test to date of whether doing a Gordon produces better results.
"" : November 30, 2007 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

The objective is the same - close down a bad story, concede and move on. But there's more than one way of taking it on the chin.

 

Mr Brown watched in horror from the Treasury as his predecessor sought to defend the indefensible and, in so doing, simply brought down more attacks upon his own head. At its extreme it became known as the "masochism strategy". Invite as much pain as you can so that, at the end of it, people conclude that you can't possibly be as bad as all that.

 

In keeping with the name, Mr Blair actually seemed to enjoy the pain. Although by the end I suspect he'd endured so much he just didn't really feel it any more. Mr Brown clearly has a lower pain threshold. He seems happy to send his tormentors off looking for somebody else to persecute. Many a minister will have felt a cold shiver in their vertebrae as the leader of the Labour Party deliberately put the reputation of his deputy on the line.

 

His wriggling over the question of Harriet Harman's conduct was bad tactics on two fronts. In the first place, far from closing down the story it simply gave the media a big neon sign pointing them in the direction of where to take it. And, secondly, it distracted attention from his main message that things were swiftly being put right.

 

The Prime Minister would do well to look again at Mr Blair's methods. After all, he went through enough crises in 10 years to have learnt a thing or two about what works and what doesn't.

 

Brown's message should be "No Whitewash, No Witch-hunts". Get all the facts out into the public domain as quickly as possible and ensure any necessary punishments. But make it clear that you won't sit back and let the media indulge in the favourite sport of guilt by association. Mr Brown might also have pointed out that the system is a lot cleaner now than under the Tories.

 

Take it on the chin by all means, Gordon, but don't be afraid to lay a punch or two of your own.

• Lance Price was a press adviser to Tony Blair as Prime Minister.

What if ?
Rewriting history can be great fun and some people make a lot of money out of books that do just that...
"" : November, 2007 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

What if Hitler had won the Second World War? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed and JFK had never been assassinated?

 

What if Gordon had called that election and David Cameron was now enjoying his first weekend in Downing Street? Or, more likely, going on Breakfast telly to say the country was back in safe hands after its rather long flirtation with Labour?

 

Well for a start this week's Queen Speech would be a very different affair. Don't believe all that guff about the parties now believing in much the same things. It's put about by the Tories and their many friends in the media to make us think it's safe to vote for them again. Yes the centre ground is getting more crowded these days but politics is about more than just positioning and spin. I should know. It's about who you go into public life to help. About where you're coming from and where you want the country to go.

 

With the public finances about to get a lot tighter Brown and Cameron would spend those scarce resources looking after the people that really matter to them and you just have to look at both men to know they have different priorities.

 

In fact, despite the polls, I don't think the Tories would have won if last Thursday had been polling day. Why? Because the polls don't tell you everything. Ask Neil Kinnock. I'm certain that, just as they did with Kinnock, the people of Britain would have taken a long, cold look at Cameron and decided they just didn't want him to be Prime Minister. He doesn't look the part and it wouldn't be worth the risk of seeing if he'd grow into the job.

 

The campaign would have shown the Conservative Party up for what it still is, out of touch with the real world. In a close fight they just wouldn't have been able to help themselves banging on about Europe and attacking foreigners, whether migrant workers or their favourite bogeymen of Brussels. The fact that the country's prosperity and that of all of us as individuals would suffer wouldn't have deterred them for a second.

 

Their only chance would have been if Gordon Brown had followed them down the same road, paying too much heed to the pollsters that he loves to consult about everything from what tie to wear to which team to support. It's an addiction that has already done him huge personal harm and he needs to kick it or he will end up as the Amy Winehouse of politics. We saw at the Labour Conference how ready he was to wrap himself in the Union Jack and play to the Daily Mail agenda.

 

We didn't always see eye to eye when I worked for Tony Blair, but I know that's not the real Gordon Brown. Thankfully he now has the time to show what a truly great Labour Prime Minister he can be.

I wouldn't pretend to have many claims to fame from the few years that I took away from journalism to work in politics. But maybe just one. I'm pretty sure I invented the phrase “the nasty party” to describe the Tories. I put it in the mouth of a defector from their ranks when I helpfully drafted his resignation statement. He's since gone back to the Tories where he always belonged but the phrase has lived on and is even in the Oxford Book of Political Quotations.


Are the few defenders of the Met Police chief the new Blairites? A small embattled group backing a leader who won't step down while most of the press bays for his blood? If so, count me out. I have a lot of admiration for Sir Ian Blair and the way he runs the force, but he now risks undoing so much of the good he has done for policing in London.

 

The Met's behaviour reminded me of the BBC, my other old employer, at the time of the Hutton Report into the death of the Iraq weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly. A powerful, arrogant institution stubbornly refusing to admit it had done anything wrong despite all the evidence. Like the Beeb, the police in the capital need to move on and can only do that when the guy at the top carries the can.

 

It took the BBC a long time to regain its credibility and self-confidence but once it had people looked back and saw that it hadn't really deserved all the criticism heaped upon it. We can't wait for the Metropolitan Police to go through the same painful process. We need them out there defending us without looking over their shoulders. Greg Dyke had to be pushed out of the BBC, protesting that he'd done nothing wrong. Sir Ian Blair thinks the same, and he's right, but that's not the point.

 

The force will be weakened until he goes. The Mirror's Kevin Maguire once called me the last Blairite left standing. Well, I never thought I would say this but Blair should resign.

 

Richard and Judy have the good sense to know when it's time to move on. The show has been looking tired lately and, frankly, so have they. The good news is that they're keeping up the Book Club. When popular TV presenters like Oprah and the Madeleys tell their viewers to turn the wretched box off occasionally and read a good book instead they do the whole nation a favour.


It's been a difficult week ever since I ran over my own glasses in McDonald's car park. They'd fallen out of my jacket pocket and landed right behind the back wheel of the car. I'm now just waiting for my insurance company to tell me they won't pay out because I was negligent. After all if I'd been wearing them I'd have been able to see where I dropped them.

A Timely Exit
Thanks to Ming Campbell, Gordon Brown will be able to walk away from his week from hell with just a gentle toasting...
"" : October 19, 2007 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

It may not feel like it, but things are looking up for Gordon Brown. And before anybody suggests things could hardly have got any worse, think again. His week from hell was just a gentle toasting compared to the full heat of a genuine political crisis. His reputation suffered a nasty singe or two but nothing more terminal than that, and the "Blairites" who leapt in with dire warnings at the first whiff of smoke should have known better.

 

Since then two things have happened. The European treaty and the abrupt end of the Ming Dynasty have taken centre stage. Both may look like threats to Mr Brown, but are actually welcome opportunities.

 

Gordon Brown and David Miliband will achieve the treaty they want, the press campaign for a referendum will get shriller, if that's possible, and the Tories will say the opinion polls show the public share their obsession. By resisting on all fronts the prime minister can demonstrate that while he may dine with Mr Murdoch he hasn't given him a veto on government policy, that he'll pay heed to the polls but not be mesmerised by them, and that the Conservative party is never happier than when it's in a Euro-tizzy. All we need is for William Hague to demand that we be "in Europe not run by Europe" and Mr Brown can smile again.

 

By 2009, now the earliest date for an election, few voters will remember what all the fuss was about - assuming they have any real idea now - and with luck the European Union will be doing its important work a little more efficiently.

 

As former MEPs, both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne understand the need for European reform and either would help the prime minister make his case. If they also rejuvenate the Lib Dems and get them punching even at their weight - if not above - they will be helping Mr Brown too. The most obvious way is by taking the pressure off Labour in dozens of seats where a collapse in their vote would have helped Mr Cameron on his way to a majority.

 

More significantly, by making a powerful Liberal case on policy, and having it heard as any new leader should be able to do, they will free the prime minister from the two-party straitjacket that has led him to see Tory clothes as the only ones worth stealing.

 

If he gets a minute, Gordon should give Ming a quick call to say thank you.

Get over it
Gordon Brown's real weakness is that deep down he still believes he's living in Tony Blair's shadow...
"" : October 7, 2007 (Click here to open / close this article.)
 

Gordon Brown has a weakness problem, but it's not the one the Tories and most of the media are trying to lay on him. It's something more profound, but also something he could easily turn into a strength if he would only let himself.

 

It wasn't weakness to call off a premature election. To have held one would have been reckless not courageous. Nor is it weak leadership to take a long, hard look at the facts before making an important decision. It's common sense.

 

No, Brown's weakness is the same weakness that has undermined his effectiveness as a politician ever since the leadership election of 1994. It's a weakness that only he can overcome. "Gordon wants his own mandate", his friends were telling journalists long before the autumn election fever took hold. Why? Because even now Brown believes deep down that he's living in Tony Blair's shadow. That he's somehow governing with Blair's majority and not his own. It's as if Brown will only free himself from the agony of having made way for Tony Blair as leader all those years ago when he wins an election of his own.

 

It's baloney and the sooner Gordon Brown gets over the sense of inadequacy it seems to give him the sooner he will be able to show what a strong, confident and effective prime minister he can be.

 

Gordon Brown is as much the architect of New Labour as Tony Blair ever was. He doesn't need to photo-shop the past in order to represent "change" for the future. And anybody who remembers the 2005 general election campaign (it wasn't long ago after all) and the decisive impact of Blair and Brown campaigning side by side, almost hand in hand, will acknowledge that it was a victory that rightly belonged to both men. For a while the Conservatives even campaigned on the slogan "Vote Blair, Get Brown" so to claim now that the electorate didn't know what they were getting is disingenuous.

 

Brown has his mandate and, as a proud upholder of parliamentary democracy, he should say so. He should also say quite explicitly that his intention is to let this parliament run to the conventional term of at least four years.

 

There never was a principled case for an early election. There certainly is no such case for one in 2008. The prime minister will only be allowed to get on with the job when he makes that clear. Then he and his exceptionally talented cabinet should put their heads down and govern in a solid, unspectacular and - yes - un-spun fashion, which is what he told us they were going to do in the first place.

 

Right now the headlines are awful for Brown but, like most bad headlines, they will be forgotten before too long. When his day of judgement really does come, at the proper time, he'll be re-elected or turfed out on the strength of what he does over the next eighteen months or so. Get that right, as I believe he will, and he will deserve a new majority.

 

Before he can do that, however, the prime minister needs to look deep into himself, slay his own demons, and recognise that he already has the authority and strength to be a great prime minister in his own right.

 

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