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13 October 2016

Corbynsceptics watch out: Nick Brown is coming for you

As a whip in the Blair and Brown governments, he was known for being a problem-solver. But can he get the current rebel MPs into line?

By Stephen Bush

Nick Brown returned to his job as Labour’s chief whip in Jeremy Corbyn’s post-conference reshuffle for the same reason that he left it 18 years earlier. Tony Blair appointed him in 1997, but sacked him a year later, fearing that his fixer was no longer working for him and acting instead for his Downing Street rival, Gordon Brown.

In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn, too, came to fear that his chief whip, Rosie Winterton, was working not for him but for Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson. So he replaced her with Nick Brown, making him the only person to have served as a Labour whip in three decades.

For Brown, this is the unlikely final act of a long career in which, from the beginning, he has had a reputation as a political fixer. In the early 1980s, he used his role as a GMB union official to secure the prize Labour seat of Newcastle upon Tyne East, whose sitting MP, Mike Thomas, defected to the SDP in 1981. After his election in 1983, he entrenched himself as a power broker in the north-east, earning the nickname “Newcastle Brown”, after Newcastle Brown Ale (though he was born and bred in Kent).

As a star among Labour’s new MPs after the electoral rout of 1983, Brown was swiftly promoted to the front bench. He soon became an ally of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He acted as their campaign manager for shadow cabinet elections and served as their unofficial chief whip, bringing other MPs into line with New Labour positions. He took the post officially when Blair became prime minister.

Nick Brown endured a political setback when Blair moved him from the whips’ office to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1998. This was followed by personal travail. He was outed as gay by the News of the World when a former partner attempted to sell his story to the now-shuttered tabloid. And his star continued to wane throughout the Blair years, resulting in his sacking from the government in 2003.

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Yet Nick Brown remained something of an unofficial chief whip for followers of Gordon Brown, and he was eventually restored as a whip once Blair stepped down in 2007. Back in the role, he was instrumental in seeing off threats to his embattled prime minister, in what one ally describes as “the years of wading through shit”.

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It was Ed Balls, the Brownite candidate whom Nick Brown privately favoured as leader over Ed Miliband in 2010, who insisted on returning the former whip to his post once Gordon Brown entered No 10 in 2007 – he was reappointed as chief whip in October 2008 after serving as a deputy for a year. Miliband, however, had no such emotional ties and, in an effort to build bridges with supporters of his defeated elder brother, the leader forced him to quit in 2010.

Nick Brown, who turned 66 this year, had believed that his sacking by Miliband was the end of his career at the top of Labour politics. He turned his mind to his hobbies – he set up the all-party parliamentary group for motorcycle speedway in 2013 – and to the question of his successor in Newcastle upon Tyne East, as he planned not to contest the seat again in 2020. As one ally said to me a few months ago: “I think Nick would consider his entire career a failure if he wasn’t able to make sure his seat went to the person he wanted it to go to.”

His return to the fray of Labour politics has come about in part because of the unlikely friendship that he formed with Corbyn during the New Labour years, when the present party leader was burnishing his formidable reputation for backbench dissent. When Brown was chief whip, Corbyn used to write him little notes, telling him when he planned to rebel. The two also have another connection: despite Brown’s reputation as a bruiser, he is dovish on matters of war and peace. He voted against air strikes in Syria in both 2013 and 2015, and against the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent in July this year.

The Labour right’s enforcers are fond of likening themselves to characters in gangster films. It is fitting, then, that Brown has come out of retirement for one last job. Yet, as any avid watcher of that genre will tell you, these final assignments often end in failure. What is certain is that his task will put him in conflict with former allies: Watson, in many ways his successor as the right’s fixer, and the GMB, the trade union that gave him his start (it represents workers in the nuclear industry).

At the peak of his powers, few would have bet against Brown to deliver votes for his leader. Yet he may well be a spent force. Even during his second spell as chief whip, as Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge write in Brown at 10, his “reach did not extend to all sections of the party”. He was put in charge of going through Labour MPs’ expenses claims after the 2009 scandal; as a result, his reputation among the party’s old warriors is mixed at best. Among the newer intake of Labour MPs, his profile is low.

Those who know Brown’s politics have little doubt that he can overcome these hurdles. “I’ve spoken to at least one 2015-er who says most haven’t got a clue who Nick is,” a senior MP reflects. “They are about to find out, anyway.” 

This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge