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4 December 2009

Exclusive: the truth about that PMQs

Douglas Alexander was key

By James Macintyre

No session of Prime Minister’s Questions has caused as much of a buzz inside Westminster since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007. Even Iain Dale agreed that Brown “won” this week, amid consensus that the Prime Minister thrived in his exchanges with David Cameron over the Tories’ inheritance-tax policy. Brown was clearly at his most comfortable deploying fresh lines about the Tory leader’s “1930s mindset” and the IHT policy that was dreamt up “on the playing frields of Eton”.

Now the papers are focusing on the “return” of Alastair Campbell. Actually, Campbell has been “back” for some time, giving occasional advice to the Prime Minister throughout his premiership. You can get a pretty good idea of what kind of lines he is pressing on No 10 from his lively blog. But he also gives private advice, despite denials this week from some of Brown’s more old-school tribalists. Like it or not, Campbell is indeed lending a hand.

However, Brown also received crucial help on Wednesday from another source: Douglas Alexander.

Now preparing for Copenhagen as the International Development Secretary, and serving as the Labour Party’s campaign co-ordinator, the capable minister landed his first job in politics, back in 1990, as a researcher for Brown. Some say that he was (unjustly) “frozen” out” by the PM after the election that never was, and in his interview with Mehdi and me in July, he admitted being on the end of negative “briefing”.

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Now, however, he is clearly back in the fold: unlike Campbell, Alexander was present at the pre-PMQs prepping session, and is a regular these days.

On Wednesday, he also found himself unexpectedly sitting next to his old mentor because Harriet Harman, who is normally by the Prime Minister’s side, was away. As Cameron began the exchange, Alexander whispered in Brown’s ear: “The more he talks, the less he says.” Then, to Alexander’s surprise, Brown got up and repeated it. That got him on a roll, and the rest is history.

Suddenly, there is a belated sense that Labour has collectively realised that it has no choice but to rally round Brown and turn its fire on the Tories. The party leadership, and the cabinet, are more united than they have been in months.

Class war or not, there will be a real fight between now and the election.