Although just about everyone who was anyone in the New Labour era has produced their memoirs, Gordon Brown, who does not come well out of many of the other accounts, has wisely allowed a decent interval to elapse before publishing his version of events.
The rift between Brown and Blair was the great fault line that ran through the first decade of the Labour government. They were two of a handful of senior politicians who had realised from the late 1980s onwards that, if the Labour Party was ever again to be electable, it would have to be dragged kicking and screaming on to the centre ground of British politics. To begin with theirs was a close friendship in which it was initially assumed by both parties that Brown was the senior partner. The first cracks began to appear with, in May 1994, the sudden and premature death of Labour leader John Smith. This was the point at which Blair suddenly leap-frogged Brown. After which nothing was ever the same again.
By and large, in telling his side of the story, Brown has stuck to the high ground. No more than five pages are devoted to his version of the rift with Blair. According to Brown the two men did a deal (Blair would say it was an understanding). In return for giving Blair a free run, Brown would be given control of social and economic policy and Blair would stand down halfway through the second term of a Labour government, allowing Brown to inherit the throne. Despite occasional friction, the deal – if that is what it was – held good in the early years but when, half way through Labour’s second term, Blair began to start talking about a third term, relations rapidly deteriorated.
Brown accepts there was fault on both sides, “The tensions between us reflected not only disagreements over substance, but our very different styles. Tony seldom told you what he was thinking. On the other hand, I am too direct, usually blunt and sometimes uncompromising.”
Once Brown became prime minister, his weaknesses rapidly became apparent. There were tales of volcanic rages, chronic indecision and desperate back-firing gimmicks in his forlorn attempt to “connect” with the electorate. Brown acknowledges that he might have been temperamentally unsuited to the top job. “In a more touchy-feely era our leaders speak of public issues in intensely personal ways . . . For me, being conspicuously demonstrative is uncomfortable.”
No need to dwell, but there is more to it than that. In the 23 years our parliamentary careers overlapped, Brown rarely ever acknowledged my existence. On one occasion, at a reception in Downing Street just before I retired, I introduced him to my successor and he managed to conduct a five-minute conversation with her without once acknowledging my existence. Several times he visited Sunderland, part of which I represented in parliament, without ever appearing to notice that I was in the room. Weird, or what?
There is a chapter on Iraq in which, interestingly, he does not seek to blame Blair for the debacle. “We were misled,” he says – by the Americans and by the intelligence services. “In retrospect, I regret that I did not press as hard as I should have. By not questioning the evidence with sufficient rigour, I let myself and many others down.”
There are interesting chapters on the near-meltdown of the global financial system and the leading role Brown played in halting and reversing the collapse. “This was the fall out from the years of greed,” he writes. Yes, indeed. Without doubt this was his finest hour. When the moment came he rose magnificently to the occasion. Not a small achievement. I have only one caveat. Throughout his years as Chancellor, he appeared to have bought in to the City of London’s own estimation of itself. One has only to read the paeans of praise he heaped upon the financial elite in his annual Mansion House speeches (none of which are quoted here) to realise the extent of the delusion.
There, however, is a great irony in all this. Although Tony Blair was an incomparably more skilled politician and although he has substantial achievements to his name, Blair’s reputation will be forever haunted by Iraq. Brown, on the other hand, for all his manifest inadequacies, may be primarily remembered for the part he played in rescuing the global financial system.
Chris Mullin is a former Labour minister. His memoir, ‘Hinterland’, has recently been published in paperback