Tuesday 13 May 2008

A cold collation of revenge

It has often been remarked that the people facing you in Parliament are merely the opposition, while your real enemies are sitting on the benches behind you. It may be a platitude, but every recent development in the unravelling career of our Prime Minister underlines its essential truth.

A month ago I rashly challenged the notion that we were witnessing the enactment of a Shakespearean tragedy in Whitehall, but there can be no doubt now that I was wrong. It is Julius Caesar all over again, only spilling rather less blood since most of the conspirators are choosing to whack the emperor over the head with thick, square books of memoirs rather than plunging daggers into his back.

Though I did think I detected the flash of a stiletto when Frank Field was on Any Questions on Radio 4 on Friday night. He threatened a backbench revolt sufficient to bring the Government down, in the absence of a comprehensive scheme of compensation for victims of the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

That would be the same Frank Field who expected to be made Secretary of State for Social Security in 1997, but whose appointment was blocked by Gordon Brown. Having been invited to “think the unthinkable” on welfare reform as deputy to the Brownite Harriet Harman, Field was then provoked into resignation as his radical ideas were set aside in favour of Brown’s own pet scheme of means tested tax credits. A system of Byzantine complexity whose establishment, most commentators seem to agree, had less to do with helping the poorest in society than with entrenching and extending the power of Brown’s Treasury.

If you spend ten years ruthlessly pursuing your own political agenda and personal ambitions with famously poor grace and ill temper, the odds are that you are going to make rather a lot of enemies, and that they will enjoy getting their own back when the opportunity arises. That is precisely what we are witnessing now.

It was said at the outset that Gordon Brown would enjoy one huge advantage as Prime Minister over Tony Blair. He wouldn’t have a brooding Scotsman with a grudge sitting in the house next door, plotting 24/7 on how to do him out of a job. Luckily for the Conservatives, Mr Brown has demonstrated that he needs no such assistance, and is more than capable of finding his own way to spend more time in Kirkcaldy with his young family.

I wrote more than a year ago that it was hard to see such a famously shy, disorganised, irascible, indecisive and undiplomatic man becoming a happy or effective Prime Minister. I can claim no personal credit for this insight, which was based entirely on reading Tom Bower’s deeply disturbing biography. I also said that I did not understand what actually drove Mr Brown, and I still don’t. As he flounders through his attempted re-launch, I feel like a four year old pointing and asking, “Daddy, what is that man for?”

What I do know is that the key to political success these days is charm. Tony Blair had it by the tanker load. So, in perhaps more modest quantities, do those notorious toffs Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Poor old Gordon, by contrast, is a completely charm free zone.

But even allowing for this inadequacy and the many enemies he had made, I did not grasp until the weekend how he had managed to get into such a very deep mess quite so quickly. Then Rupert Murdoch started serialising Cherie Blair’s memoirs and she revealed that Tony was still in regular contact with Gordon and was giving him tips on how to win the next election. Ah yes, that would account for it. Revenge served ice cold, just as the pundits say it should be.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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