8 years ago today in Washington DC, I endured – no other way to describe it – one of the toughest days in my working life. And it had all started so well.
Still a civil servant at that stage, I watched the 2004 Labour party conference in Brighton from my office in the Treasury. Compared to the acrimony of the 2003 conference (‘Best when we are Labour’, etc.), Brighton had been relatively harmonious, and all the speculation was that a deal had secretly been done for Tony Blair (TB) to stand down for Gordon Brown (GB) before the 2005 election or shortly afterwards.
GB met us at Heathrow ebullient and firing on all cylinders. He’d made huge play in his conference speech of our obligations to the poorest in the world, and was now hyper-active about the need to deliver progress at the G7 summit in Washington. This suited me. He’d spend the flight talking to Shriti Vadera, Jon Cunliffe and his other international development experts about negotiating strategy. I could spend it drinking my way through BA’s wine list and watching films.
Scattered throughout the plane were the various economics editors of the national broadsheets – Larry Elliott from The Guardian, Gary Duncan from The Times, Phil Thornton from The Indie – and up in business class with us were the legendary Alex Brummer from the Daily Mail and the greatest journalist you’ve never heard of, Sumeet Desai, then of Reuters.
We landed in bright sunshine at Dulles, and as usual, I had my two phones out and switched on as we were descending, ready to pick up the latest from London. Not that I was especially obsessed, but I could guarantee Gordon’s first question as we walked off the plane would be: “What’s the news?” If we’d ever been taken hostage by the Taleban in Kabul, rescued by the SAS, and dragged into a helicopter, Gordon’s first question to me when they took the hoods off would have been: “What’s the news?”
I looked at my phones. My inbox was starting to fill up like a Tetris board – 36 messages, 18 voicemail notifications. I went through the texts. Ed Balls: ‘Ring as soon as you land’. Ian Austin: ‘Ring asap’. Trevor Kavanagh: ‘Are you in Washington with GB? A word when you can.’ Phil Webster: ‘Give us a call’. Ian Austin: ‘If there are press on that plane, get them well away from GB.’ Steve Field: ‘Blimey. Carnage.’ Ed Balls: ‘Ensure total discipline’. Ian Austin: ‘Have you not landed yet?’
It’s at these moments that three thoughts go through your head: 1. Oh shit; 2. Why does no-one take the time to send you a text which helpfully and succinctly explains what the hell is going on?; and 3. Oh shit.
As we were taxiing down the runway, I called Ian then Ed. Ian: “No10 had to announce that Blair’s having a heart operation tomorrow and explain why he’s bought a house in Connaught Square, so he’s tried to get on top of it by saying he’ll serve a full third term. It’s all being done as a devastating blow to Brown – kills his chances of becoming PM and so on. Total carnage.” Ed: “You’ve got one job – Gordon and everyone around him needs to be totally disciplined about this. Total discipline.”
The door opened and the business class passengers went down the steps into a shuttle bus. I’d had to break terrible news to GB over the years; that was part of my job. When we worked in No10, I became the official ‘breaker of bad news’ because I was regarded as the best at it. But aside from the death of Robin Cook, this was the hardest thing I ever had to tell him.
Gordon: “What’s in the news?” Me: “Hold on.” Gordon: “What’s wrong? What’s happening?” Me: “I need you to tell you something, but you can’t react. You’re being watched by Alex Brummer.” Gordon (agitated): “What is it?” Me: “You need to relax. Alex is watching to see if you’re angry or upset, so you need to calm down before I tell you.”
When I relayed the news, his head started to sink, but he then put on his famous fixed grin for Alex’s benefit and started talking about where we would watch the weekend’s football matches. When we got to the convoy of cars and mini-buses to take us to the IMF building, GB disappeared into his limousine and I got on with the job of ‘ensuring total discipline’, telling all the officials and advisers with us that both we and Gordon would be under massive media scrutiny for the next 24 hours for evidence of anger or depression, so it was vital that no-one gave them any.
It was already too late. As we later discovered, somewhere, somehow, between the plane landing and GB’s entourage going into the IMF, the brilliant Larry Elliott – not just the best economic journalist in the world but one of the most intrepid newshounds in the British media – had managed to get a corker of a quote out of one of our number: “It’s like an African coup – they waited ‘til he was out of the country”.
Once inside the UK delegation office at the IMF – then occupied by Tom Scholar, currently occupied by Alex Gibbs (the greatest Treasury civil servant of the last 20 years), and soon to be occupied by David Cameron’s official spokesman Steve Field – the mood was pitch black. GB had a series of scheduled meetings with other delegations, but could barely be prised away from Tom’s sofa, where he sat staring out of the window at the street below.
I stood nearby, making my series of calls to the umpteen political journalists who had texted me asking for the reaction from Washington and for details of Gordon’s mood and movements, sounding as bright and relaxed as I could, explaining that he was busy with his meetings, had no problem with Tony’s statement and was fixated on getting increased IMF aid for developing countries, GB occasionally looking darkly at me as if he thought I was chiding him.
That evening, as usual when we were overseas, the Media Monitoring Unit at No10 faxed me through the front pages of the papers, asking with more than their usual sarcasm: “Are you interested in the coverage of the PM’s statement?” As the Guardian splash rolled off the fax machine with its ‘African coup’ headline, my heart sunk and my head raged. Others at home were seeing it at the same time, and my phone started to hum again. Ian: “Have you seen Guardian? Who the hell said that?” Ed: “What happened to discipline?!” Trevor Kavanagh: “Just seen Guardian. An urgent word please.”
The Treasury under GB was almost immune to unplanned leaks and rogue quotes, a remarkable record sustained over 10 years. That was in part due to our policy that unless a quote came from X, Y or Z, then we’d simply deny that it represented the Treasury view, where X was the Head of Communications (successively Peter Curwen, John Kingman, Michael Ellam, me, Paul Kissack and Chris Martin), Y was the Media Special Adviser (successively Charlie Whelan, Ian Austin and me), and Z was Gordon himself or either of the two Eds.
It was also due – and I take full credit/responsibility for this – to my Admiral Byng approach to leaks. If anything did appear in the papers that was not from X, Y or Z, I would instantly name a culprit. I’d try and choose someone who was a decent suspect, but their guilt didn’t really matter – it was the assertion of their guilt that mattered. They would be cut out of meetings, removed from the circulation list for emails, and wherever they walked in the Treasury, people would mutter about their demise. The effect of this was to make the actual guilty party feel guilty as hell, and put the fear of God into everyone else in the Treasury about doing any leaking themselves. As for the poor Admiral Byngs, they’d usually recover after a while, and some of them were probably guilty anyway.
With the ‘African coup’ quote, the chief suspect was Shriti, although she furiously and plausibly denied responsibility, and she was too important to GB to give her the Admiral Byng treatment. So I had to let it slide, and to this day, Larry remains inscrutable on the subject.
That evening, I sat with GB at the hotel bar, and watched the first Presidential debate between John Kerry and George W Bush. In 6 years working for GB, I never saw him so down. Within ten minutes of the debate starting, he was rasping criticism at his friend John Kerry. “Look what Bush is doing – security, security, security. He’s defining the election, and instead of challenging him, Kerry’s going along with it. He’s trying to win on security – he’ll never win on security. Where’s the economy? Where’s jobs? Madness. Madness. He’s just lost the election.”
As each question was asked by the debate moderator, Gordon would thump the bar and deliver a word-perfect response for Kerry to deliver, and then thump the bar again and shake his head as Kerry made his own response. “Rubbish. Total rubbish. You’ve lost, man. You’ve lost.” It was a remarkable thing to watch, GB gripped by anger and frustration, projecting his own feelings onto Kerry, but still the consummate political genius.
Later that night, I tried to cheer GB up. “Look, Blair was forced into making that statement – he didn’t want to make it, and he probably doesn’t believe it – he had to say it or else he’d have to quit before the election. Nothing’s really changed – he’s not going to serve another 5 years.” GB just shook his head.
“I’ve already had seven years. Once you’ve had seven years, the public start getting sick of you. You’ve got seven years when you’ve got a chance to get people on board, but after that, you’re on the down slope. I’ve tried not to be too exposed, but it’s still seven years. The only chance was getting in next year before the election. Tony knows that. Every year that goes by, the public are going to say: ‘Not that guy Brown, we’re tired of him – give us someone new.’”
We talked a while about the ‘seven years’ theory. It was clearly informed by the US Presidential system, but GB went through a series of British politicians and made the same point. He argued that Margaret Thatcher – despite carefully rationing her public appearances (a point made by Peter Bingle in his Friday musing) – was on the slide in public opinion even at the time of the 1987 election, and that Churchill had only bucked the trend by continually re-inventing himself.
I understood GB’s mood and mindset far better after that conversation. I believe he only ever wanted to fight and win one election, serve four years and hand over to the next generation before the following election. He believed 2005 was his one chance to do that, and Tony’s statement had robbed him of that chance. Of course, he robbed himself of his second chance in 2007, but that’s another story.
There was an amusing post-script to that dark day. The next morning, GB had to do his briefing to the UK economics editors in a meeting room in the IMF building. As he prepared to go in, he asked what he should say if anyone asked him about Tony’s heart operation. Sue Nye said that Anji Hunter was due to text her when they knew that the operation had been a success and Tony was recovering, but she’d heard nothing yet. GB was only half-listening, and when he sat down with the journalists, he began his briefing by saying: “I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that Tony Blair’s heart operation has been successful and he’s recovering well, and we all wish him well.”
Sumeet Desai was hovering at the back of the room, and raised his eyebrows at me in time-honoured ‘Can I go and use that?’ fashion. Having only half-heard what Sue said myself, I gave him a nod. He slipped out, and 5 minutes later – as Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson and the world’s press stood outside No10 saying that there was no news yet from No10 or the hospital on the PM’s condition – the ‘breaking news’ flashed up: “Reuters: Brown says Blair operation ‘successful’; PM ‘recovering well’, much to the chagrin of the journalists in Downing Street and the confusion of Tony’s staff given he was still under sedation at the time.
Why does any of this matter today? Well, next Wednesday marks seven years since David Cameron’s ‘speech without notes’ at the 2005 Tory conference, so we will soon get a chance to test the theory again. Cameron obviously hasn’t been PM for all of that time, but he was the most over-exposed opposition leader in history, and has undoubtedly been front line in the public consciousness for 7 years. Indeed, three of the top ‘Family Fortunes’ associations the public has with Cameron (i.e. ‘What comes into your head when you think about David Cameron?’) – huskies, hoodies and chauffeurs – will also see their 7th anniversaries within the next 10 months.
But as Peter Bingle again observed in that Friday musing, the interesting thing is that Tory strategists are currently trying to re-create the ubiquity that the PM enjoyed in his first year as Opposition leader – putting him on Letterman, putting him in every Olympic arena, even – heaven help us – putting him on Twitter.
If Gordon’s seven year theory is right, this is the last thing they should be doing; they should be rationing his public appearances and building up other fresher individuals – especially the exceptional Grant Shapps – as the public face of the Tory party. Otherwise, they risk people switching on the pre-election debates in 2015, looking at Cameron and thinking: “Oh not you again, I can’t stand another 5 years of you.”
That’s if Gordon’s theory is right. We’ll wait and see. But in the meantime, anyone who complains that Ed Miliband isn’t ubiquitous enough should remember that he was in Washington with GB that weekend, he heard the same mantra, and he knows that by the time of the next election, he will already have been 4½years in the job. So excuse him if he plays the long game when building his public profile. He’s smart is Ed Miliband.
This column was first published on Damian McBrides Blog