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A way out for Brown?

Is Gordon Brown finished? Well not necessarily so, according to the IPPR's Prof. Michael Kenny. And

The idea that the current government is embroiled in an irreversible endgame began to be heard several months ago. With astonishing speed, this has now become a given of current political discourse. The only storylines left for the hapless prime minister, it seems, are resignation, regicide or electoral meltdown.

But are endgames as inescapable and unwinnable as is widely assumed? Or are there strategic responses that have allowed seemingly doomed administrations to regain momentum and turn things round against all expectations?

Those with long memories and more detached minds will recall that this current bout of government-baiting is not without precedent. A common feature of the endgames associated with the final years of the administrations led by James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and John Major, was that in each case a complex tangle of pressures and failings got compressed into one overarching theme in the popular mind.

This motif became both lightening rod and symbol for all that was deemed wrong with leader and government. For Callaghan it was industrial discontent; for Blair, Iraq; Thatcher, the Poll Tax; and Major, Europe. In today’s context, we have to wonder whether the economic downturn has already forged the prism through which Brown and his government are widely viewed. Many believe that Brown’s fate has already been sealed with portions of the electorate.

And yet the historical record also contains some intriguing counter-examples and unforeseen political outcomes. And these ought to provide food for thought for those keen to write the obituary of this government.

The notices served on Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, in 1982-83, and the difficult prospects facing John Major’s before the election of 1992, did not result, as many expected, in electoral defeat. And in Major’s case this was despite a backdrop of economic recession.

Both examples illustrate the importance of unforeseen events, and the lingering difficulty which Labour in opposition had in establishing a relationship with a wary electorate. More directly relevant to Brown’s plight are the remarkable turnarounds engineered by the great electioneer Gerhard Schröder in the German elections of 2002 and 2005.

A mixture of changing circumstances and strategic acumen generated unexpected political momentum and a stumbling response from his opponents. These gave his party a surprise narrow victory in the first of these contests and though it did not win outright in the latter, it did force the Christian Democrats into coalition with the SPD.

The Brown government’s most recent efforts to ‘re-launch’ itself, and its over-hyped economic recovery plan, do suggest recognition of the need to break out of the vicious and self-fulfilling spiral of judgement associated with the politics of the endgame.

But the derision with which these proposals were received is a clear sign that modest measures and conventional political calculations are unlikely at present to shift the force-field of political life.

Policies emerging from cute tactical triangulations – balancing off tabloid editors and core voters - have not given people enough with which to identify. Nor have they communicated a clear sense to the public about whose side it is that the prime minister is on.

What then are the ingredients of the kind of approach that might give the government and its supporters a degree of hope, and interrupt the flow of popularity and initiative away from government to the Conservatives?

Above all, this needs to be a positively defined strategy, expressed in language that gives meaning to disparate policies and ties together important initiatives; not a calculated gimmick or one-off attempt to outsmart the Tories.

The government desperately needs greater definition, a well communicated purpose and a sense of direction. These will most likely come from a policy frame that is plausibly tied to Brown’s own political identity and keenest passions.

A push for greater social justice combined with a commitment to remaking the case for active government in difficult times, could provide a powerful way of framing some valuable and eye-catching measures across different departments, for instance legislating to abolish child and pensioner poverty, a major extension of the public provision of childcare and a further initiative to bring UK class sizes into line with the OECD’s average.

These would provide a more vigorous test of the substance of the Tories’ proclaimed new progressivism.

They could also be underpinned by a straightforward account of the importance and role of the state in terms that express a sharper difference between the politics of progressives and the seductively simplistic idea of the ‘post-bureaucratic state’ favoured by David Cameron.

For sure, economic policy is going to remain the major arena of political life in the next year and beyond. But the government’s ever more defensive tapering of its own agenda in response to the worsening crisis only seems to confirm its declining reputation with the public.

Opening up other related ‘fronts’ in the political struggle over the management of the economy is a vital means of generating the kind of forward momentum and sense of purpose which this government so patently lacks. As well as fairness and social justice, there is a strong case too for turning rhetoric about devolving real decisions and powers to elected representatives outside Westminster into some bold legislative realities.

Giving some real powers to local authorities and communities in areas such as taxation, health and policing, carries undoubted risks. But these are surely now outweighed by the government’s growing reputation as an overly centralising and distantly bureaucratic force.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Head of Social Policy at the ippr

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.