Political sketch: Return of the Great Sulk

Gordon's bully boys and a Bullingdon original at Leveson.

 

The trouble about feeling sorry for Gordon Brown is that he got in there first and has no intention of giving up the position to anyone else. 

The Great Sulk emerged from two years of voluntary exile in his Scottish fastness — apart from occasional forays abroad to earn vast sums —and it was as if he had never been away.

Still the slept-in face, still the rictus grin and still the answers to questions never asked as the former Prime Minister turned up at the Leveson inquiry and promised honesty on his relations with the press.

It was as if a dam had burst as Gordon got his first chance since the General Election to say his piece about some of those who brought about his downfall.

Each short question from the rather stunned interrogator Robert Jay provoked a speech in reply and chapter and verse rebuttal from a man who denied being obsessed by the news he “barely read”. 

Indeed in this rather bizarre world we learned that Gordon  believes Rupert Murdoch “deserves respect” for building his media empire and the two men  had a special bond because they were both “of the manse”. The Mr Nasty in the relationship was in reality Murdoch minor James, who clearly did not share his Dad’s tartan sympathies.

But even that special link must have run out when the Murdoch major said an “unbalanced” Gordon had threatened to go to war with his company after the Sun switched from Labour to the Tories in 2009.

That conversation, talked about from the same seat by his Presbyterian pal just a few  weeks ago, ”did not take place” said Gordon clearly unhappy about the suggestion he had been a bit bonkers.

We learned too of his further anger at the Sun’s publication of details of his son’s cystic fibrosis which he said he now knew had clearly been leaked and which he felt he and his wife were pressurised by editor Rebekah Brooks into confirming.

But why serious socialising and partying  went on well after that event between Sarah Brown and Mrs Brooks, including a pyjama party at Chequers for her 40th birthday, was because Sarah “finds the good in everyone ”.

And it was clearly Gordon’s turn to “find the good” as questions turned to the more flamboyant  members of his own inner circle, special advisors Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride.

His “attack dogs”, as Robert Jay described his media managers, were nothing of the sort and were never guilty of the systematic briefings against his opponents they had been accused of said a suddenly nervous Gordon.

Indeed these other sons of the manse-clearly once, twice or even thrice removed had never briefed against Tony Blair, Alistair Darling, John Major, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and anyone else - and if they had, said Gordon, they had done so without his agreement, permission and knowledge - and it was nothing to do with him.

Were the bully boys involved in trying to force Tony’s departure from office, asked Jay.

“I would hope not," said Gordon.

As the press in the audience fought to swallow this news of the innocence of the Whelan/McBride axis, Gordon said his ambition had been “to get rid of spin”. 

As his evidence into his indifference continued you noticed that, unlike all other witnesses, Gordon rarely referred to his documents and he seemed to remember just about every detail of every slight - and indeed every email.

If there had been naughty behaviour it had been “without [his] authorisation”.

Then suddenly it was over and Gordon went back into witness protection.

Gordon had been billed as merely an aperatif for the main event - the appearance of Chancellor George to face charges that he did knowingly persuade Dave to take on Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, as official mouthpiece for the Tory party.

The News of the World may well have closed in shame and Mr Coulson departed awaiting the slow but serious steps of the police but George had no apologies to give as he had his half-day in court.

Polished of face and polished of style he emerged without a glove on him well in time for the kick-off of the England game after a Bullingdon boy display of bravura.

Yes, he had met with the Murdoch menagerie on loads of occasions but never had any improper conversations about their business and the BSkyB bid.

Indeed, said George, it was “a political inconvenience” to a party half of whose newspaper backers opposed the move.

And as for Andy, who he said was still a friend although he had not  “been able” to speak to him for a year, he had checked him out with Rebekah Brooks.

He’d asked Andy about phone hacking and accepted his word that nothing he had done at the News of  World would come back and bite him.

And as for the endorsement of the Sun at the General Election, “I think we could have won without it," he said.

If only Gordon could have thought the same.

 
Gordon Brown at the Leveson inquiry. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser