What if . . . Granita had been closed

At last, the release of Alastair Campbell's unexpurgated diaries has given us an insight into what happened on 31 May 1994, the night when Tony Blair agreed to stand aside for his great friend and rival Gordon Brown in the Labour leadership race.

At the time, the consensus in the press was that the younger man was the stronger candidate. And yet, reading Campbell's diaries, it is clear that as much as a fortnight before the meeting Blair was getting cold feet.

“I really don't want to fight Gordon," he told Campbell on 13 May. "I don't think that would do anyone any good - not us, and certainly not the party."
Even so, when Blair left for that dinner two weeks later, everyone expected him to come back triumphant. But Campbell's diaries show that the plan went awry almost from the start.

Blair's office had booked a table at the trendy Granita restaurant in Islington, but a bout of food poisoning the previous night meant that the two politicians arrived to find the door closed. Blair hesitated, and his Scottish rival saw his chance. "There's a fish shop across the road," he muttered. "That'll do."

It was in that fish-and-chip shop (now an estate agent's office) that the balance of power shifted. "TB said that as soon as they walked in, GB seemed a new man," Campbell's diaries record. "He took a great deep breath, inhaled the fumes of vinegar and batter, and that was it. TB said GB didn't even use a wooden fork, just ripped the fish apart with his bare hands, and then brought his big clunking fist down on the counter and said he wasn't going to give up without a fight."

Brown's aides deny the story, of course. "Typical Campbell embellishment," says a former insider. But things were different after that meeting. Two days later, Blair went on Radio 2 to announce that he was backing Brown. And two months later, Brown, together with his deputy, Margaret Beckett, were the ones applauded at the special leadership conference.

Historians may well wonder what might have happened if Granita had been open that night. For one thing, the simmering feud that dominated Brown's first term might never have happened.

Many of us are looking forward to the volume of Campbell's diaries that covers the aftermath of the 2001 election, when Brown brought the infighting to an end by sacking Blair from his position as foreign secretary. "The worst decision he ever made," is how Clare Short describes it. "Tony was the conscience of our party. When he was gone, we were never the same again."

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas