Brown, “Bigotgate” and the Prescott punch

Let's get some perspective, please.

Can we all just calm down? Or perhaps that's not possible in this 24/7 news/comment/blog/tweet age in which we all now live. Hyperbole rules. Frenzy is the norm. Memories are short.

Brown's gaffe -- or "Bigotgate", as it has already become known -- is not the end of the world, despite what his opponents might have us believe. The Telegraph's Benedict Brogan says this "might finish off Mr Brown altogether". ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie says it is "devastating for Brown".

Really? You mean the financial crisis, the recession, the expenses scandal, the European election results, the Purnell resignation, the letter to Jacqui Janes, three failed coup attempts and "bullygate" weren't enough? As I point out in my column in tomorrow's magazine, Brown -- to the fury of his disbelieving critics -- is the great survivor. It is amazing that he, and the Labour Party, are still standing in this election -- and perhaps on the verge of becoming the largest single party in a hung parliament. Who'd have thought it, eh?

Will Bigotgate set him back, especially with the third and final leaders' debate tomorrow, in which the PM will have wanted to focus on the economy? Maybe. But it is high time we recognised that "public opinion" is not the same as "pundit opinion". "Bullygate" in particular showed that voters didn't seem to react as Andrew Rawnsley, and his supporters in the Tory press, assumed they would.

Then there is the Prescott punch in the 2001 election campaign to consider. Did that wreck his careeer? Nope. As the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow notes:

These incidents are often not as damaging as they look. John Prescott was worried that his career was over after he punched a voter in 2001. But now he seems to regard that as something to be proud of. He referred to it in the title of his autobiography, and jokes about it frequently.

Journalists have short memories. Today, they laugh about Prezza and his punch; back then they were baying for his blood, with newspapers extolling his egg-throwing opponent as a "mild-mannered giant". The Indie's Colin Brown, in his biography of Prescott, reminds us of the hysteria -- both inside the Labour Party and in the media:

There was mayhem in the open-plan war room, as staff ran from one television to another, and tuned into the BBC, Sky and the 24-hour news programmes to try to catch the first pictures of the incident. Austin told an official to start videoing the news.

Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, who was broadcasting live about the incident from their Millbank studio, received a call from an official in Labour's Millbank HQ half a mile away. "A press officer at Millbank said I would be sued for libel," he told me. "They would have denied it, if we didn't have the evidence." That threat died as Sky News began broadcasting film of the incident. Boulton, who was acting as the anchorman in London for the election, told viewers it was so serious that Prescott could be forced to resign.

But Brown's camp stood by Prescott, and were determined to get ahead of the news by issuing a statement claiming it was self-defence. Lance Price, a former BBC political correspondent in charge of the party's media strategy, refused to put out any statement before they had seen the pictures with their own eyes.

But the party's pollster Philip Gould was convinced that the public would never stand for a deputy PM who went round hitting people and said that Labour's poll rating would be floored by Prescott's punch.

Meanwhile, a shaken and downcast Prescott telephoned Alastair Campbell on his mobile. Campbell took the call as Blair was about to record an ITV election programme, Ask Tony Blair.

"It's John," said the gruff familiar voice on the end of the line.

Campbell, who put the story in his one-man show when he left Downing Street, recalled there was an ominous silence. With the DPM that always meant there was a problem.

"I've hit someone," said Prescott.

"What?" asked Campbell, who could not believe his ears.

Campbell was incredulous as Prescott told him what had happened. Campbell decided not to tell the Prime Minister until his show was over. Prescott's friends say Campbell told Prescott he thought he would have to apologise.

Prescott snapped back: "You didn't apologise when you hit that lad on The Guardian." He was referring to the incident when Campbell, then political editor of the Daily Mirror, had punched Michael White, the political editor of The Guardian, in the Daily Mirror office at the Commons when the Mirror's ogreish owner, Robert Maxwell, had been found dead at sea. White bad popped his head round the Mirror's door and playfully suggested the paper's headline should be "Bob, Bob, Bobbing Along". Campbell, harassed, did not see the funny side.

As Blair, Campbell and Blair's gatekeeper, Anji Hunter, drove back from the studio, the grim view on board was that Prescott was in serious trouble. Blair asked Hunter what she thought. She had no hesitation in telling the PM it was terrible. "Middle-class England will not understand it," she said.

Campbell had a lot of time for Prescott, and had helped defend him when the press had been intruding into his private life over his wife Pauline's love child. But landing a punch in a general election campaign was, Campbell thought, beyond the limit.

The consensus in the Blair camp was that at least Prescott should apologise and some thought he should resign to try to limit the damage to the campaign, which was partly based on a promise to deal with yobbish behaviour. Brown was more cautious, and delayed forming an opinion until they could get a clearer view of what exactly had happened. While the debate went on at Millbank over what they should do, Prescott's career hung in the balance.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”