Behind the times
Tom Bower HarperCollins, 492pp, £20
The cruel truth about instant political biography is that it must either make the news, or succumb to the news. Publishers have become greedy for the "killer fact" that will command a high serialisation price from the newspapers, or spin off a television documentary. Unfortunately, as the latest book about Gordon Brown demonstrates, there are very few killer facts still to be revealed about new Labour. Fortunately for Tom Bower, he has excellent connections with the Daily Mail, which serialised his diatribe - but he clearly has very few contacts in the Chancellor's camp. His disclosures are not even disabling, much less lethal, and they have been overtaken by events.
Bower finished writing in July, just as the Prime Minister was setting off for his long summer break at the holiday homes of the rich and famous. Presumably, his deadline was dictated by the need to publish during the week of the Labour party conference, when political interest is held to be at its greatest. It is, but not in books that do not have much new to say. Attention centres on the real actors, acting out a fresh drama.
Worse, the true hero of Bower's book - Tony Blair - took the narrative forward with a series of killer facts that set the political landscape ablaze. He was taken into hospital for a heart operation (or "procedure", as aides prefer to say); he announ-ced that he would serve a "full" third term as party leader and PM; and he promised to step down ahead of his putative fourth term. On page 438, after a lengthy and imaginative description of the Chancellor's failed putsch of January 2004, Bower quotes "Brown's enemies" as saying that Blair "intended to serve a full third term and resign during the fourth to allow the party to choose a leader". This timetable, taking the handover to a date as late as 2016, would have extinguished all hopes of a Brown succession. Assuming he had not raised the bar to 70 in the meantime, he would be pushing the state retirement age.
Oh dear. It is a bad day when a hostile author cannot rely on his subject's enemies, even after going to so much trouble to assemble the case for the prosecution. In the absence of that elusive mortal leak, Bower has left no cliche undisturbed. Brown is a brooding volcano, given to deep black moods; a dark, gloomy bachelor, pathologically private, given to tantrums, verbal violence and obscenities, and engaged in an obsessive search for a rootless pseudo-meritocracy. He even breaks pencils. In meetings! He grunts monosyllabically in the presence of the Prime Minister and subsists on a diet of junk ministers. Why has this man not been sectioned by his old enemy and fellow Scot Dr John Reid?
The answer is that Brown has delivered a record of economic competence for Labour, disposing of the party's Achilles heel. Bower is at his best when questioning the credibility of this record, though he appears to accept too glibly the assessments of the Chancellor's critics. He performs a ruthless and impressive dissection of the Treasury's machine-gun delivery of tax credits, welfare-to-work schemes and similar enterprises since 1997; however, it does not make for light reading.
Bower, a villains-and-heroes man (but chiefly villains), knows in any case that his market is not for such economic disquisition, but for the all-consuming Brown v Blair drama, moving into its fifth and decisive act. In the past few scenes, Brown has been kept out of the party's National Executive Committee, elbowed aside in the manifesto-manufacturing process by the ultra-modernisers Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, and stripped of his leading role in the election campaign. Can Brown still seize the crown? Bower suggests that he can and will. Having dumped on the Chancellor for 456 pages, he predicts that "eventually" Brown's opportunity for the premiership will arise. "Probably, and deservedly, his bid will be successful," he writes. Deservedly? Each-way Bower cannot bring himself not to back the bookies' favourite.
There are some errors here. I was on the Independent on Sunday, not the Daily Mirror, when I wrote the first Brown biography in 1997. Nor did I receive £100,000 for the serialisation of my book on Peter Mandelson. I received nothing, following the theft of the proofs (not the manuscript) from my old office at the Commons, a criminal act for which Mandy's creepy pals at Westminster have never apologised. Brown did not oppose the national minimum wage; Blair did. And it was the Low Pay Commission that George Bain headed, not the Low Pay Unit. Altogether different beasts. I could go on, but you get my drift.
Bower occasionally relies on quotations and disclosures from Derek Scott, a former economic adviser to Blair and another Brown-compulsive, who has written an account of his six years in Downing Street. Scott is concerned mainly with the politics of the euro, on which he is a self-appointed expert. Karl-Otto Pohl, who was president of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1980-91, regards Off Whitehall as "a valuable contribution to a better understanding of the problems of a further integration of Europe", and who am I to disagree?
The first chapter, devoted to the Blair-Brown war, has plainly been bolted on to make the book more interesting - not an easy task. Scott, a failed SDP parliamentary candidate who also flunked the Labour selection at Pontefract against Yvette Cooper, wife of Brown's former chief economic adviser, Ed Balls, is in no doubt that Blair's instincts for what makes a market economy tick are more often right than wrong. He shares Bower's judgement of Brown, but writes in a less abrasive manner, qualifying his criticism and pleading: "I'm not a psychologist." Bower has no such compunction, frequently claiming to know what Brown must have been thinking. On 2 May 1997, "as Blair stepped on cue into the spotlight at sunrise, [Brown] was hiding a simple torment: 'It should have been me.'" More Mills and Boon than boom and bust, you might think.