Brown’s big moment

The Prime Minister faced down his enemies and won back Labour's confidence. Now comes the difficult

Never underestimate Gordon Brown. That would appear to be the lesson to take from this year's Labour conference by his political enemies inside and outside the party. The Prime Minister began the week in Manchester as the architect of Britain's economic downturn, besieged by challengers to his authority. He ended it by making a credible case, in his party's eyes at least, that he is the only man for the job of steering Britain through uniquely difficult times.

Two Davids were slain by Goliath's insinuation that this is no time for "novices". Brown's main conference address was not quite the speech of his life, though it might have been if he had made it last year. But it was the best many activists had ever seen him make and precisely the message they wanted to hear: a new calibration of the relationship of the market and the state containing a solid challenge to the banking industry to get its house in order, along with a renewed commitment to the role of government. The key section of his speech was these words: "Just as those who supported the dogma of big government were proved wrong, so, too, those who argue for the dogma of unbridled free-market forces have been proved wrong again." In other words, 2008 may turn out to be as signi ficant as 1989. As the US government contemplates a $700bn banking bailout, the rules of the political game have changed just as surely as they did after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now comes the difficult part: delivery. This includes, for instance, making good on the bold claim that "in the months ahead we [will] rebuild the world financial systems around clear principles". Politicians are often accused of making promises they can't keep, but this really is quite a pledge. If the Prime Minister pulls off this superhuman feat he will deserve to be back in contention for the next election.

Brown now seems to have accepted his Chancellor's assessment that the world is entering the most difficult economic period it has experienced for 60 years, despite allowing a disgraceful briefing operation against one of his closest and most loyal political allies following Alistair Darling's remarks in a Guardian interview over the summer. Though the Chancellor's comments provided a rather gloomy assessment of the situation for a party so far behind in the polls, they now seem like something of an understatement.

The one outcome the clever boys who invented new Labour never considered as they excised the socialism from their party was that we would witness a crisis of global capitalism in the first decade of the 21st century so severe that it would force both Britain and America into nationalising financial institutions. The events of the past month are beyond the wildest predictions of the handful of Marxists left in the Labour Party. But they have allowed Gordon Brown to reposition himself as a man of the left: if not quite a socialist, then a confirmed social democrat. This is a high-risk strategy, because it will have confirmed what the Conservatives and those on the right of the Labour Party have always suspected about him. The autumn will show whether Brown will be able to counter charges from the right-wing press that he has simply taken his party back to its statist roots in order to guarantee his own political survival.

One test as Brown moves the political centre of gravity in his party to the left is whether he can hold together a coalition within his party of those who would be naturally suspicious of such an approach. Within the cabinet, John Hutton at Business and James Purnell at Work and Pensions will take some convincing, but their loyalty will be all the more vital. As the Prime Minister contemplates the imminent re shuffle, he will have to consider promotion for more "Blairites" such as the immigration minister Liam Byrne and the Europe minister Jim Murphy, neither of whom is his natural ally.

Bring all the talents

It seems like a very long time ago, but this was supposed to be a "government of all the talents". If the financial crisis is as serious as many in the government suggest, then extraordinary times require bold solutions. There is an argument for saying that the Prime Minister should invite David Cameron and Nick Clegg to Downing Street and tell them the time has come for all good men to come to the aid of the country. A national government would allow Brown to bring in expertise from across the political spectrum.

Just imagine if Vince Cable's business expertise could be harnessed in the present situation. An offer of cabinet posts to the Tories and Lib Dems would also serve to completely wrong-foot the opposition. Such thoughts are fanciful, of course, but they raise some interesting questions about Gordon Brown's leadership.

Let's imagine for a moment that such a coalition would be in Britain's best interests. It could also include, as Bernard Donoughue suggested in these pages last week, some Labour big beasts such as Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn. Would Gordon Brown have the generosity of political spirit to bring together such a group when he can barely hold together his own cabinet? There is a serious side to such speculation, which is this: Cameron may well turn out to be capable of such generosity. The Tories have already mischievously invited the education minister Andrew Adonis to cross the floor and there is little doubt that further offers would follow a Conservative election victory.

The overarching narrative of Manchester 2008 may be that Gordon Brown lived to fight another day but the whiff of rebellion still hangs over the Labour Party. David Miliband may have pulled back from his "Heseltine moment" (his parliamentary private secretary, Dan Norris, was sending out messages to MPs on Monday urging them to brief journalists that the Foreign Secretary's speech was intended as an act of loyalty). But too much has now been said and done. Every senior political journalist at Labour conference will have had conversations with at least one cabinet minister, expressing grave doubts about the Prime Minister's leadership. Despite attempts during conference to smear as traitors those who, like Siobhain McDonagh and Joan Ryan, called publicly for a leadership contest, the two women ended up looking more like conscientious objectors. It is to the eternal discredit of Labour colleagues who treated McDonagh and Ryan as pariahs that they failed to recognise the years of devoted service they had given to the party.

Competing narratives

Gordon Brown quite wisely used Manchester to move the debate on to the global stage and away from the petty sectarianism that has engulfed the Labour Party. Unfortunately, this was challenged by two competing narratives that dominated the late-night bars in Manchester.

The first was the relentless bullying and poisonous briefing carried out by Brown's inner circle of bag carriers and the second that No 10 Downing Street has become "dysfunctional" under Brown's stewardship. The word "thug" was rivalled only by "rebel" in the lexicon of this year's Labour conference. There was serious speculation, for example, that No 10 obtained an advance copy of the Guardian magazine in which Decca Aitkenhead's interview with Darling appeared, and leaked it to the Telegraph before the Guardian went on sale.

Recent events have allowed the PM to reposition himself as a man of the left

There is a growing consensus which includes cabinet ministers and journalists that Brown must act to control his main spin doctor, Damian McBride, who has been held responsible for some of the more personal attacks in recent months. The presence in Manchester of McBride's predecessor Charlie Whelan, who now works as the political director of the trade union Unite, did not help the atmosphere. Seconds after Brown's speech, Whelan was telling anyone who would listen that the Prime Minister's "novice" remark was certainly intended as a reference to David Miliband.

The second narrative of conference, that No 10 has become dysfunctional, is even more damaging for the PM. Ministers talked freely of "sclerosis", "indecision" and "incompetence" as the defining features of their dealings with the centre of government. One senior Labour figure, who had experience of working under Tony Blair and Brown, said the difference was immediate and startling. For instance, there were key individuals under Blair. "If you called Jonathan [Powell] or Anji [Hunter] or Sally [Morgan] you knew you would get a decision within 24 hours. With this lot it would sometimes take weeks or months. Sometimes you heard nothing at all." The trouble for Brown is that no attempt to shake up the operation has made a significant difference.

A lot is resting on Brown's first reshuffle, which will be such a huge test of his authority that there is every possibility he will delay it still further. The decision he makes about his Chancellor could turn out to be the most defining moment of his premiership, beyond his decision to call off the election that never was. One reason Gordon Brown will find it so difficult to sack Alistair Darling is that he and those around him are furious at the way he was hung out to dry over the summer. Darling has the capacity to become the Geoffrey Howe of this Labour government if he chose to do so. It is a cruel paradox that the Prime Minister's greatest ally could become his most dangerous foe. lInside trackInside track

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008

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A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain