The End of the Party: the Rise and Fall of New Labour

Andrew Rawnsley approaches great political issues as if he were writing a gossip column.

According to Andrew Rawnsley - and few of us are able to argue that he is wrong - there were times in the spring of 2004 when Tony Blair "would wake up with a start in the middle of the night to find sweat trickling down the back of his neck". That "revelation" is a perfect example of the style and technique which, according to the advertisements, have resulted in The End of the Party "making headlines". It gives simple-minded readers the feeling that "they were there" in Downing Street during the crisis of conscience and confidence that followed the then prime minister's discovery that the invasion of Iraq was hugely unpopular with his core supporters and that, thanks to the brutalising of Iraqi prisoners by their American captors, it could no longer be portrayed as a battle of good against evil.

Such illusions only work when the fly on the wall can be trusted to give meticulously accurate information about the lives of the great and the good. But the story that, on election night in 2005, Blair received "another fright" when "Estelle Morris was wrongly thought to have lost her seat in the West Midlands" justifies doubts about the accuracy of other anecdotes. Estelle Morris was not a candidate in that campaign. However, the errors in The End of the Party are less disturbing than the reporting technique that Rawnsley employs.

Consider page 189. Sir Stephen Wall, sometime "senior adviser on the EU" at No 10, is said to be commenting on reports that Gordon Brown went "off to Brussels to knock together the heads of those ghastly Europeans". Take careful note of the quotation marks:

Pretty often the story had no basis in fact and very often Gordon didn't go to Brussels at all. What it did do was undermine the Prime Minister's efforts “to build a constructive relationship with our European partners".

The operative phrase - which condemns the Prime Minister - is supplied by the author, not the diplomat, but the passage creates the impression that Wall is accusing Brown of sabotaging Blair's hopes of a closer relationship with Europe. There is no doubt that Rawnsley set out with the intention of painting a deeply unflattering picture of the Prime Minister.

I do not suggest that Rawnsley's motive was political. It was commercial. Every "exposure" - and, despite its pretentious claims, that is what The End of the Party amounts to - needs to offer potential readers the chance vicariously to love or hate, admire or despise, its dramatis persona. Cool appraisal does not sell as well as the details of anguish, aggression and betrayal. So Brown becomes an indecisive Hamlet, brutal Macbeth and jealous Othello. The suggestion that detailing the supposed character weakness was a public service - the fearless journalist defending the people's right to know - is absurd. Had truth and justice been Rawnsley's only aim, he would have exposed the Prime Minister's alleged faults in his weekly newspaper column, rather than storing them up to use as the bait which caught a publisher's advance - assuming that the serious newspaper for which he works was prepared to publish tittle-tattle.

A political commentator is entitled to be offensive, but to be trivial is unforgivable. And Rawnsley approaches great issues as if he were writing a gossip column. A book about Brown's final years at the Treasury cannot avoid dealing with the controversy surrounding tax credits - a complicated innovation which turned into an administrative nightmare. All that The End of the Party has to say on the subject is that "the chancellor was meantime raked with criticism by stinging [newspaper] reports about the maladministration of his tax credits". The story then moves on to its favourite theme: Brown's demands for Blair's resignation.

It ought to be said that the clumsy sentence about tax credits is not typical of Rawnsley's style. Most of the book moves along at a great pace and much of it is written with elegant brio. That makes its general triviality all the more irritating. Sometimes he deals compellingly with important subjects. He even gets close to solving the mystery of how Brown came to make the great error of his Treasury years - the abolition of the 10p tax band. But the story ends with descent into the prose of romantic fiction. Brown (by then Prime Minister) sat "hunched and dishevelled...surrounded by piles of paper" when Frank Field visited him with suggestions about how the damage might be limited.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Brown's chancellorship, but Rawnsley seldom makes them. Instead, he recycles "damaging" anecdotes - often adding comments of his own to ensure that the point is driven home. For example, Brown was late taking his place at a Buckingham Palace banquet, and the Queen is said to have noticed his brief absence. Rawnsley adds that this "was in danger of being Gordon Brown's epitaph. The Prime Minister who got lost." My, how they laughed in the school playground.

Given that serious matters are not as entertaining, they get brushed aside. If Rawnsley has a view about the rival merits of the "Anglo-Saxon" and "European" models of economic regulation and intervention - one of the main points of difference at the London G20 summit - he does not share it with his readers. He does, however, tell them that, at the austerity dinner in No 10, President Sarkozy, who wanted to "cleanse the murky waters of tax havens stayed for the Bakewell tart", after "giving the British a small scare by arriving late for the Scottish salmon starter".

Although the publicity surrounding The End of the Party concentrated on unpleasant stories about the Prime Minister, it must be conceded, in Rawnsley's defence, that he is unpleasant - often wholly gratuitously - about everybody except his named informants. Readers will
decide for themselves why he chooses to sneer about Lord Levy impressing Labour donors with "the nouveau-riche gold leaf decorating his mansion", but the more fastidious among them will judge The End of the Party to be an unpleasant book.

Rawnsley clearly expects that The End of the Party will encourage the voting public to make moral judgements. Few people will regard the Prime Minister as a villain because he impatiently evicted a secretary from her chair when he discovered that he could type more quickly himself. However, perceptive readers will ponder the ethical propriety of Rawnsley's informants. Many of them are Brown's implacable enemies. Others seem willing to attack the Prime Minister - his character, not his policies - for the mere pleasure of proving that they are "in the know". The most despicable among them seek to do their damage anonymously. As The End of the Party demonstrates, politics, although an honourable trade, attracts some highly undesirable camp followers.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II