For he was a jolly good fellow

Westminster should mourn Charlie Whelan's departure, argues Patrick Hennessy

It was the scoop I wish I'd never had - the news that my great friend Charlie Whelan was finally to leave his post at Gordon Brown's right hand after five rumbustious years of spinning, scheming and issuing Whitehall's most ferocious bollockings since the days of Sir Bernard Ingham.

With a typical flourish, Charlie ensured that I had the first official confirmation of his departure in time for early editions of Monday's London Evening Standard. It was a system we had used many times in the past, during hours of crackly conversations on mobile phones as he travelled to the Treasury by mini-cab (not paid for by the tax-payer) from his Peckham home.

I first met Charlie in about 1990, when he was a thirty-something press officer for the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and I was a 27-year-old industrial correspondent for Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun. Drawn together by a mutual love of football (if such a claim is possible for a Spurs fan such as Charlie), dog-racing and a keen sense of the ridiculous, I quickly realised that our relationship was likely to become personal as well as professional.

In those dark days of the Neil Kinnock era, the scars of Wapping remained and most union officials refused point-blank to speak to the Sun. Charlie was a godsend. Not only was he the energetic supplier of leaked documents from Ford and other companies, but he was also keen on getting the engineers' approach of single-union, no-strike deals across to the widest possible readership. We were particularly proud of one feature in the Sun's much-sought-after page six slot, alongside the leader column. Ostensibly written by the AEEU's president, Bill Jordan, but actually the work of Whelan and me in the Marquess of Granby pub, it proclaimed one new car-plant agreement under the headline: "It's a joy-ota to work for Toyota."

Stunts like these attracted the attention of Peter Mandelson, who made overtures to Charlie to join the then opposition's top team late in 1993. Charlie went off to work for Gordon Brown, Mandelson switched sides and attached himself to Tony Blair and the bitterest feud of the new Labour years, one that led directly to the departures of both men, had begun.

It is impossible to begin to understand Whelan the spin-doctor without understanding Whelan the man. If he knows you are on his side and can trust you, then he will do anything for you. It is hard to imagine the workaholic Treasury aide having a life outside his job, but in fact he has a strong, enduring relationship with his partner, Philippa Clarke, and a diverse group of friends who have nothing to do with the political arena.

Football, inevitably, is to the fore. One of his rare protest letters to a newspaper came when the Independent called him an Arsenal fan, and I have fond memories of turning up for a drink after what turned out to be a 6-1 drubbing of Spurs by Chelsea and finding a lone figure in a tatty sheepskin coat, cursing his team and braced for my inevitable taunts.

This sense of loyalty was one of the main reasons why Charlie kept getting into trouble with the Downing Street control freaks. His "popularity" among journalists at Westminster has often been stressed, but in reality he was popular among a dwindling band of hacks. Others never seemed to recover from his expletive-studded tongue-lashings (the best technique was always to swear back at him even louder). This meant that, during the long, long campaign by Downing Street to have him sacked, he could count on relatively few media allies.

Many press officers, especially in the ranks of young new Labour wannabes, are careful not to make too many enemies as they have their eyes on a political career. This was not the case with Charlie. He saw his job as being to make, and keep, Gordon Brown popular, not to court popularity for himself. It is forgotten how poor Brown's image was before Charlie's recruitment. Showing real political skill, Charlie transformed a dour, soundbite-obsessed workaholic into a relaxed, smiling, avuncular figure, who somehow managed to combine a war on state spending with regular handouts of cash for the "people's priorities" - schools and hospitals.

The great test for the man whom Charlie made the Teflon Chancellor will be how he survives Whelan's departure and how this will affect the strained relationships between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and between Brown and at least seven members of the cabinet who feel they have been the victims of Whelan "monsterings". My guess is that it won't take long before many members of the government come to realise that, while Charlie might have been the weapon, he was not the real marksman.

Finally, when you know someone really well, it can be amusing to see how the same small mistakes constantly reappear in profile after profile. Charlie's favourite drink is spritzer, not lager or Guinness. His "Cockney accent" actually reveals the drawling vowel sounds of his middle-class upbringing. At least they all got the football right. And I'm looking forward to the next Chelsea-Spurs game. As always, Chelsea will win. And this time maybe the mobile phone belonging to the man sitting next to me in the sheepskin coat will not ring six times in the first half alone. But don't bet on it.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

Getty
Show Hide image

The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.