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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.