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The lost herd

When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he made great play of appointing figures from outs

On 11 May 2007, in a speech at the Imagination Gallery in the West End of London during which he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown promised a "new politics" of openness, reform and change. He pledged to govern "in a different way", with a fresh style and new personnel. "I will reach out to put national interest before sectional interest," he said, "and I will form a government of all the talents, bringing people together to listen, to learn and solve problems, building on a broad sense of national purpose."

Within 48 hours of entering Downing Street as Prime Minister, on 27 June, Brown announced that the former United Nations deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown, the former first sea lord Admiral Sir Alan West, the former secretary general of the Confederation of British Industry Sir Digby Jones and Ara Darzi, one of the country's leading surgeons, would be ennobled and made ministers in government. Over the past two years, other non-politicians have joined Brown's ministerial ranks, including his former chief of staff and ex-head of the television regulator Ofcom, Stephen Carter, and the former City fund manager and multimillionaire Paul Myners.

Today, the Prime Minister's big tent is slowly being folded away, its frame dismantled, as one after another of the chief recruits to his "government of all the talents", called "goats" by Whitehall insiders, slips the ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Of the original quartet, only Lord West remains in office.

Should we be surprised? The Prime Minister is by reputation both a party-political tribalist and a keen centraliser of power - his former permanent secretary Andrew Turnbull described him as "Stalinist" and his former cabinet colleague Charles Clarke called him a "control freak". He always seemed an unlikely goatherd. Here was an opportunity for him to show the country his pluralist intentions and bipartisan credentials.

Tony Blair had been a strong advocate of big-tent politics: think of the late Roy Jenkins's report on proportional representation and Chris Patten's commission on policing in Ulster. Brown went beyond Blair, who deployed the great and the good from across the political spectrum only to advise, review and report, by bringing political outsiders directly into government.

Goats, however, are notoriously stubborn creatures, unpredictable and difficult to control. Malloch Brown became Lord Malloch-Brown of St Leonard's Forest in the County of West Sussex and was appointed minister of state for Africa, Asia and the UN at the Foreign Office. Within a fortnight of taking office, he had announced, much to the annoyance of Washington, that Brown and George W Bush would not be "joined at the hip" in the manner of Bush and Blair, a remark that seemed to suggest the end of the "special relationship".

When Malloch Brown resigned this month for "personal and family reasons", he said he remained "completely loyal to the Prime Minister". Yet reports since have suggested that the former international diplomat could no longer tolerate working in chaotic Whitehall, and had told colleagues that he had been party to better "strategic thinking" in Latin America and south-east Asia than in Downing Street. In a farewell salvo on Wednesday, Lord Malloch-Brown became the first senior minister to admit that British troops need more helicopters in Afghanistan - contradicting the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary - and he conceded that Brown's future looked "bleak". So much for loyalty.

His resignation was followed on 14 July by that of the Iraqi-born Ara Darzi - who, as Lord Darzi of Denham, was appointed by Brown as under-secretary of state at the Department for Health. Known as Robo-Doc for his pioneering work in the advancement of minimal invasive surgery and his use of surgical robots, Darzi fuelled speculation about an early election in October 2007 by publishing an unexpected interim report on his plans for NHS reform. He also angered campaigners, and Labour backbenchers, in a speech to the Lords in January 2008, by abandoning Lab­our's historic commitment to eliminate mixed-sex wards from NHS hospitals.

Darzi said he was resigning to focus on his medical work and academic research, but one has to ask: is this the time for a health minister to quit, as the Department of Heath grapples with a swine flu epidemic? He leaves the government having failed to see through the "once-in-a-generation" reforms he announced the government would be making to the NHS. Perhaps his only memorable contribution to political life is the time he leapt across the red benches in the Lords to save the life of a fellow Labour peer, Lord Brennan, who had collapsed after a heart attack.

Arguably the most controversial resignation - and appointment - among the goats was that of Digby Jones. The corpulent, conservative recent head of the CBI took the title Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, and became minister for UK trade and investment in the (then) Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He quit the government after just 18 months in the post following a series of disagreements with Brown over spending and taxation, rows with civil servants, and a stream of gaffes - including some embarrassing remarks at a forum of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs. "We don't care what colour you are," he said. "We don't care if we can't pronounce your names and we don't care where your money comes from. We just want you to invest in our country." Jones then said: "I'm a goat, not a professional politician."

Since leaving government, Jones has spent his time criticising both Brown and civil servants, telling a Commons select committee in January this year that the job of junior minister was "one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have".

So who is left? The sole remaining goat from the original herd is the former first sea lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, who became Lord West of Spithead and was appointed under-secretary of state for security and counterterrorism at the Home Office by the Prime Minister in June 2007. Home Office press officers have since described him as "gaffe-prone", a "liability" and a "nightmare to manage". In November 2007, he questioned the government's plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge, stating in a live BBC radio interview that he was not "totally convinced" of the case for change - only to perform a U-turn less than two hours later, after a hurried meeting with Brown.

His explanation: "Being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't choose my words well." (The PM's spokesman issued his own memorable clarification: "I think he thought it was necessary to make sure his position was properly understood. I'm not sure he has changed his mind. Lord West made his position quite clear. Lord West gave his views quite clearly in his second statement.")

West is known for his bravery. In 1982, as the 34-year-old officer in command of the frigate HMS Ardent when it was sunk by Argentinian bombers during the Falklands conflict, he was the last to leave the sinking ship. His action earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Nearly three decades on, the "simple sailor" remains the last man standing on the sinking ship of government. One source close to West says he has no plans to quit and that he is committed to his Home Office role - but adds "for the foreseeable future".

Brown's aides are curiously unwilling to lay any blows on the fleeing goats. One Downing Street aide told me each of them had "enrichgovernment" and that their contributions to public life "remain a genuinely positive story". What about Digby Jones? "Digby is Digby," I was told. "We knew he would be outspoken from the moment he was appointed."

But is this a genuinely positive story? One could argue that it was foolhardy to tread down this path in the first place. Political outsiders are, almost by definition, either ignorant of political rules, regulations, conventions and customs, or unwilling to conform to them. This was an accident waiting to happen.

Then there is the issue of ideology. As James Purnell (who resigned from the cabinet in June) has been busy pointing out, ideas matter, and constructing big tents in politics, welcoming as they may be, risks losing sight of this. New Labour was built on the assumption that modern politics is no longer ideological, substantive or divisive, that what matters is what works, and that there are bureaucratic, technical and pragmatic fixes to every political problem. This has proved to be a fiction. Bringing in outsiders to add expertise and experience to government is not new: Clement Attlee succeeded with the trade union leader Ernest Bevin, and Margaret Thatcher with the businessman David Young. Brown's mistake was to pretend that he could defy the laws of politics by appointing people who neither owed him party loyalty nor necessarily shared his political values. Jones, for example, is said to have discussed becoming a Con­servative MP once with the then Tory leader, Michael Howard. As head of the CBI, he had long opposed a range of Labour economic and social policies, chief among them the minimum wage. Why make him a Labour minister?

But, above all else, this is a story of a government of all the talents that could not keep those talents for long. On the one hand, we had a prime minister who thought he wanted independent goats in his administration but really needed loyal sheep; on the other hand, we had non-politicians who thought they could adapt to politics simply by virtue of their experience or expertise.

The shortsightedness identified by Lord Malloch-Brown and the bureaucracy singled out by Lord Jones are now hallmarks of modern British governance. The end result is a group of outsiders who have returned to the outside world, disillusioned, disappointed and depressed. That Lord Myners has announced he is leaving the Treasury to become a student of theology speaks volumes about life as a minister today. Whether we like it or not, politics will continue to be dominated by professionals.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right