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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.