Nailed: the two-hour period when blair finally caved in to brown
The screamed threat “I’ll bring you down with sleaze” that the fiery Scot is alleged to have launched at the Prime Minister has, understandably, hogged the headlines. However, what most people seem to have missed is that Chancellor Brown yelled this (with or without accompanying mobile phone we do not know) according to witnesses in March 2006….six months before Blair finally handed over the reins of power.
Sleaze is a potentially wide-ranging description, but there was only one known newsy bit of this grimy stuff at the time: the rapidly emerging Donorgate scandal – illegal donations via which New Labour hoped to reduce its massive £26.2 milion debt, run up largely during the previous year’s election. It seemed to many back then (including Brown and probably Jack Dromey too) that this was likely to lead straight back to Blair; but Teflon Tony didn’t earn the soubriquet by accident. Despite a brazen attempt by Dromey to finger the Blairites without warning on television, Blair stayed exactly where he was.
By now – despite Blair’s outline promise to retire - it was clear to the Brownshirts that they had a Prime Minister who would have to be pushed. Blair was under pressure from a vocal minority in the Party (especially the notorious Anyone But Gordon group) to resist Brown until another successor could be found. It is also probable that close exposure to the Chancellor in government had forced Blair to concur with his friend Peter Mandelson’s view – spelt out eventually in an email to Derek Draper during 2009 - that Gordon Brown was ‘insecure, self-conscious physically and emotionally, uncomfortable in his skin and angry’. In short, not the right man to take on a newly resurgent Tory Opposition under David Cameron.
There is some evidence that Brown first began to show signs of severe depression during 2006. As I wrote on my then blog Not Born Yesterday, I first heard Westminster chatter about the Chancellor’s use of anti-depressants in June of that year. I also heard regular tittle-tattle about him being ‘moody’, ‘brooding’, ‘down’ and so forth, but that was nothing new: I’d first been given a run-down (by a Treasury official) on Gordon’s personality flaws in 2004. The new element in this gossip was the allegation that he was on medication. Clearly, he wasn’t feeling up about the chances of forcing Tony Blair’s hand.
Depressed or not, it didn’t stop him winding up his supporters to sponsor any and all speculation about when Blair might leave Office. During the late Spring, as the BBC journalist Nick Assinder reported:
‘Westminster became gripped by talk of a resignation date, backbench rebellions and attempts to force Mr Blair out of office. Few doubted that this emanated from the Brown camp’
Peter Mandelson has since remarked (on David Aaronovitch’s visual history of the Blair years) that “Tony didn’t want to go”, but as ever with the man who is now Gordon’s new best friend, there was a ‘but’:
“..but he wouldn’t risk bringing the house down.”
In his video-history, Aaronovitch toed this line, depicting Blair as a selfless leader who decided in the end to make way for the good of the Party. Those who have watched Tony over time (and in the Chilcot chair last month) will make up their own minds about that version of events, and depiction of his personality. However, it’s no secret that Aaronovitch is probably his biggest media supporter, and a man who rubbishes all questions raised about Blair’s ethics as ‘conspiracy theory’.
The ‘graceful exit’ version of events is not what I was being told by sources at the time, and it isn’t borne out by Blair’s behaviour either. On 1st August, he delivered perhaps his best-ever speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. It bears re-reading today: in it he makes a passionate case for a united front against reactionary Islam. Its tenor is not that of a man deciding to give up within six weeks.
In the middle of the month, he was reported as approvinging long-term UK energy policy, and being strongly in favour of commissioning a new generation of nuclear reactors. In relation to Global Warming as a whole, he was committing Britain to long-term support for anti-warming energy measures.
But then – over a period of just six days at the start of September – everything changed.
On September 1, the Prime Minister stuck two aggressive fingers up at the Brownshirts by giving an interview in which he refused to name a departure date. He very specifically ruled out saying any more on the subject either before or during the Party Conference, due to open on September 24.
The Chancellor’s men decided to turn up the heat. On 5th September, 17 backbenchers sent Blair a letter saying it was time to go – and the following day there were five non-Cabinet and pps-level resignations. However, on that same day (September 6th) ) around lunchtime, author Peter Watt had a meeting Gordon Brown. Expecting Brown to be tense, he was amazed to find him relaxed and confident.
“Don’t worry” the Scot told him, “It won’t last long”.
In the early evening, Watt went to Number Ten to see his boss. He takes up the story:
‘He was standing up, looking the worst I’d ever seen him – old, grey and drained. ‘Tony, I’m so sorry about what’s happening to you. It’s so wrong,’ I said, meaning it wholeheartedly.
‘It’s just politics,’ he said, doing his best to sound unfazed, though it was obvious he was shell-shocked
The next day, in what was a big climbdown for him, he finally gave in to the Chancellor, and publicly confirmed that he would step down as Prime Minister within 12 months. It was the ‘bankable’ public statement Gordon’s henchmen wanted.’
It takes a lot to make Tony Blair look old, grey, drained and shell-shocked. But the Mandelson, Campbell, Aaronovitch apologist axis would have us all believe that - at some point over a four-day period – a gaggle of irrelevant resignations had been enough to break his will to resist the blandishments of a man he clearly didn’t want to succeed him.
What follows isn’t ‘conspiracy theory’: it’s informed observation of what happened. My contention is that it takes something very big to make Gordon Brown chirpy and Tony Blair shell-shocked. I think it entirely possible that the Chancellor threatened his boss with an ultimate weapon of destruction during those six days. And I believe one can narrow down the Blair change of heart to a specific two-hour period.
The tools I use for this dissection do not include wild speculation. Rather, I employ a careful analysis of timelines, utterances, responses, motives, contemporary reports, and known personality traits.
The 2nd/3rd of September 2006 was a weekend. On Friday 1st, the PM announced he was personally going to take the arguments against the break up of Britain up to Scotland . On the 4th he gave a speech committing himself to a major Social Exclusion Strategy….a subject he had cited several times as the reason he was unready to leave Number Ten. This doesn’t look to me like the behaviour of a bloke who has thrown in the towel.
On Tuesday 5th September, the seventeen (count them) rebellious backbenchers said their ‘go now’ piece. “I’m not standing for that” Blair is alleged to have said at the time. His wife Cherie told Blair that he should now “finally deal with Gordon”. According to the Labour blog European Tribune (not pro-Blair) posting of that day, the Blairites leaked a memo to the Press purporting to outline a ‘farewell tour for Blair basking in the glory of his country’s gratitude’. The blog described it on that day as Blair ‘with all guns blazing….the classic gangster movie cliché “You’ll never take me alive”…’
At this point, Blair favourite David Miliband (the BBC reported) tried to silence the exit calls by saying Mr Blair would quit in a year's time. Shortly afterwards, the Beeb added that Number Ten had issued a statement saying 49 MPs (rather more than 17) had pledged their unwavering support to Blair.
It’s clear from this that the Blair spin machine is still in full working order - and fighting back.
The low-grade resignations take place the follow midday. I doubt their influence not just based on common sense belief in Blair’s ability to ride bigger storms than this....but also based on what is alleged to have taken place between the two men early on that morning.
The ‘window of change of heart ’ is now some time between the aggressive Blairite response after midday on the Tuesday, and Watt’s meeting with Brown at roughly the same time the following day.
On Tuesday evening at 9.25pm, the BBC reported that David Blunkett was still urging the Brownshirts to back off and let Blair decide his own time to go. So although we can’t be sure, one could suggest that even at this late hour, the PM is still in the ring.
Enter another ‘witness by proxy’ – the BBC’s Nick Robinson. After the battle, on Friday 8 th, he writes
‘….One Blairite told me that on Wednesday morning before anyone had resigned that the Chancellor used the threat that they would resign to try to extract concessions from the Prime Minister….’
Now this is the crux of the issue. It’s 9.30 – 10.00 am (ish) on the Wednesday, and there’s Gordon saying before the resignations that he’ll unleash them unless Tony agrees to go.
Ergo sum, as the resignations are unleashed anyway, it means Blair is still telling Brown to stuff it.
But….by midday(ish) Brown is all smiles, and able to tell Watt “This (the resignations and infighting) won’t last long”.
So, at some stage between 10 and 12 on that fateful day, Blair is suddenly persuaded that he has to back down and let GB succeed him.
By 3.30pm that day, both men are urging their legions to back off. Robinson reports this in his blog…..and that corroborates exactly what a Party old-stager told me at the time: the game’s over, now let’s not give the Tories any more to go at.
So what could possibly have been said to Tony Blair to suggest that his Teflon coating might have a dangerous scratch in it?
I can offer you this interesting extract from Nick Robinson’s blog towards the end of the following day. It tells you not only who, but what he feared:
‘ Gordon Brown feared that he was becoming seen in a way he's desperate to avoid: at worst, as Tony Blair's assassin; at best, as someone demanding a private stitch-up to make him prime minister.’
Several theories have been advanced. But some astonishing new ones haven't.