Star rating 8/10
As soon as I am finishing one book, my mind turns to what sort of read I will want next. Maybe a classical novel, or a Greek tragedy, or possibly something with a bit more humour. In this fascinating new account of the demise of New Labour by the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley, I got some of the best elements of all these genres. Very Shakespearean, and also just like watching my favourite TV comedy ‘ The Thick Of It’, complete with weak but power crazed politicians and their malicious spinning side kicks, who battle with each other in a stunningly vicious way. The phrase ‘you couldn’t make it up’ comes to mind again and again during this complete page turner of an account. And lots of pages to turn in it there are too – with the meat of the book taking up nearly 700 pages.
Rawnsley takes us to the heart of the New Labour action, taking up the story from the start of their second term in office in 2001. Predictably, it is the insight into the relationship between Tony Blair, the dashing, charming and media savvy Prime Minister, and his jealous, bitter and resentful Chancellor next door, Gordon Brown, which makes the most compelling reading. Blair obsessed with power and his legacy; and Brown so obsessed with taking that power away and having it for himself that he seemed to completely forget to plan what he would do with it if he got it. Some of the more astonishing revelations have unfortunately already been released to the media and splashed across newspaper front pages. Even so there are some episodes that have not been given so much publicity that seem just too bizarre for words. One such is the apparent anger felt by Brown when he believed that the Blairs kept leaving their young son Leo’s pram outside their flat door deliberately so that it would remind them of the death of their baby daughter Jennifer. That seems frankly preposterous but apparently that is exactly what Gordon thought.
Blair comes across as stymied at every turn by the antics of his rival. Rawnsley claims that Brown stopped him from doing many things during his premiership, just because he could - apparently even refusing on occasion to let Blair know what was going to be his Budget. And the hapless Tony refused to believe that his old pal Gordon could be quite so cruel, and so gave him the benefit of the doubt again and again, until it was too late. In fact the two men seem to have been so unhealthily obsessed with each other that it is a wonder that they managed to achieve anything at all. There is certainly no sense of any political project being undertaken here, just factional infighting; very unprofessional behaviour by themselves and their many followers; and amazing hubris by both.
Apart from the TB-GB issue, as it was fondly referred to by the inner circle, this account charts the journey to war in Iraq that Blair made, and his poodle like behaviour in the face if the war monger Bush. The shameful episode of the ‘sexing up’ of the case for war dossier, and the death of scientist David Kelly is well known to us by now, but it still incredible to peek into the minds of the main protagonists as they played the terrible story out. Alistair Campbell (or should that be Malcolm Tucker?) in particular was obsessed at his own fight with the media, rather than the actual truth. You just would not want to come across any of them in a dark alley at all.
And so when Tony is finally ousted, hoisted on his own petard of the war, it is unbelievable the Brown seems to continue is his bullying manner, only this time not aimed at a single rival, but rather anyone who he sees as vaguely standing his way. It is frankly amazing that his character has not been revealed before. The various crises of his leadership are explored from the credit crunch to the expenses scandal. Brown comes across as a very weak leader, who lacked the charm and charisma of his predecessor, and lamely followed in his footsteps without conviction. For example, in his handling of the continuing war in Afghanistan, Rawnsley says that ‘Brown would never be mistaken for Henry V’, as he read out the few speeches he did make on the war ‘with the passion of a man reading out the weather forecast for Kirkcaldy.’ And the bitter irony of his increasing dependency on old foes to shore up his leadership, such as Prince of Darkness Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, and even his old friend Tony Blair is quite ironic.
Towards the end of the book, as the events Rawnsley is retelling seem more like news than history, the analysis is less compelling. Indeed it is rather a gamble to prophesy to end of the New Labour project when opinion polls are still subject to such fluctuations, giving rise to differing predictions of who will form the next government on a daily basis.
But Rawnsley has given us a riveting account of the dangers of power without conviction, check or morality. And of course of the way an obsessive rivalry can grip a government, and the reader, from the very first page of this fascinating book.