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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change