Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.
The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.
Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.
Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.
The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.
Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media. His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman. Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.
By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated. There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future. Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not. The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.
There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308). By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”. Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge? These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.
Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday
In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.
The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered in this sequel is rather more complex.
On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).
On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.
Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.
After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”
This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.
Imagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…
Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.
Honestly. What a missed opportunity. The comic possibilities of a potential title for former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls were seemingly almost endless.
Here are just a few: Balls Revealed, Balls Exposed, Balls Up, Balls Out, Iron Balls, New Balls Please!, Strictly Come Balls, Golden Balls, Better Ed Than Dead.
Instead, this book published by Hutchinson has the extremely dull title, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics. One just hopes when the time comes for his wife to reflect on her political career, she is more imaginative.
May I suggest, It Shouldn’t Happen To Yvette?
Perhaps Ed didn’t want to look stupid. He was a serious contender as recently as last year after all. Labour’s defeat and the loss of his own seat were a big personal shock to him. He is probably the most capable post-war Shadow Chancellor never to make it to the position of Chancellor Of the Exchequer itself, along with John Smith.
The book is not in chronological order but linked thematically. He talks frankly about his stammer, the hard years under the brilliant but volatile Gordon Brown, his eventual falling out with Ed Miliband, his support for Norwich City (yawn!) and his running. He has a sense of humour too. Let us not forget his response to George Osborne’s claim in 2012 that the Chancellor had delivered a “Robin Hood Budget”. Balls charged that on the contrary, Osborne “couldn’t give a Friar Tuck.”
A good book then, but what a shame about the title. After all, if he really doesn’t want to look stupid why is he currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, attracting more attention than ever before, by making himself look like a total pranny?
As Lord Heseltine once said: it’s not Brown’s. It’s Balls.
Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale
The Miliband years are never likely to be viewed with much nostalgia by Labour supporters.
The rot began early with the reaction of David Miliband’s supporters to their candidate’s surprise defeat by his younger brother Ed in September 2010:
“Rather than pulling themselves together or else walking away and sulking in silence, they would begin badmouthing ‘the wrong brother’, telling anyone who would listen, that his victory was illegitimate, that it had been won only by cosying up to the unions and telling the party what it wanted to hear, and that Labour had made a terrible mistake…”
Thus the legend of the “wrong Miliband” was born. David’s reputation became grossly overinflated. most commonly by the Tory newspapers who would undoubtedly have savaged him every day had he become leader.
As Tim Bale notes in this excellent account of Ed Miliband’s leadership “anyone who thinks David Miliband would have proved a model of decisiveness and a master of political timing probably did not work very closely with him in the Brown government.”
Nor did it seem to matter that Ed had been elected wholly legitimately, David suffering from an arrogant tendency not to take his brother seriously. The next five years would be a struggle. Ed Miliband’s spell as Opposition leader was probably the most difficult since Iain Duncan Smith’s disastrous tenure a decade before.
It certainly wasn’t all bad: Ed enjoyed successes during the phone hacking scandal and in the battle of energy prices. He also fought a generally good election campaign (although this book stops before then). Before the exit poll on election night, Cameron and his entourage were gloomy, almost universally anticipating some form of defeat.
But Miliband undoubtedly failed to convince the public he was up to the job of national leadership. This was partly the fault of the hostile media but he must take a fair amount of the blame for this failure himself.
His worst failing was his almost total failure to defend the generally good record of the Blair-Brown years. As Bale notes:
“…it is certainly true that Brown, with the help of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, actually handled the truly terrifying possibilities thrown up by the global financial meltdown as well as – maybe even better than – any other world leader”.
But Miliband, keen to distance himself from the past allowed the reputation of one of the most successful governments since the war to be wrecked.
The Labour Party will live with the consequences of this for some time to come.
A few things changed in the next few years. I moved inevitably from my late twenties into my early thirties. My social life in Exeter prospered. Despite not knowing anyone in Devon at all on my arrival, I soon met loads of people through both my shared house band my job at DVD Monthly magazine. The job was very enjoyable too. I am a huge film buff and got to see tons of films and even got to interview a fair few stars.
2007 was the year Tony Blair (still then viewed as a very successful Prime Minister) bid the nation a fond farewell as leader and I left the magazine for a less glamorous but theoretically more secure job on the local paper. Still more crucially, that was also the year I met the love of my life Nicky. We moved into a small rented house in Exeter together just before the 2010 General Election.
In the meantime, things had started to go less well for everyone thanks to the global economic slump which began in 2008. I myself lost my job on the vulnerable property section of the paper at the end of 2008 (the DVD magazine went under after nine years at almost exactly the same time) and I would be either unemployed or in slightly unsuitable temporary non-journalism jobs for the next two years or so. At the time of the 2010 election, I was working at a solicitor’s in Taunton. The other employees (mostly trainee solicitors) were all very nice (I had got the job through one of them, an ex-housemate) but I was ill suited to the work and the car share arrangement to work from Exeter to Taunton each day was awkward, particularly as I didn’t have a car and could not drive.
My hours were long and although I knew the job would be ending soon, I felt slightly as if I was missing the election. Exeter had an excellent Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. He had served in the Brown government and had been an MP since 1997 but in 2010 was looking quite vulnerable. I wanted to help more.
For Labour were clearly heading for defeat nationwide, of that there was little doubt. History will probably judge Gordon Brown kinder than we do. He stopped Britain from entering the Euro and later probably prevented the recession from becoming a full blown depression. The global slump had nothing to do with government overspending. Virtually nobody claimed this at the time simply because it was self evidently not true. Government spending did not seriously escalate until the banks needed bailing out, something the Tories supported at this point. Indeed, the chief Tory complaint at this time was that the markets were overregulated: the exact opposite of the truth.
Brown, was, however, temperamentally unsuited too leadership in some ways and though very much a Tony Blair wannabe, the new young Tory leader David Cameron did at least look the part.
Nicky and I did our bit; Nicky holding some Labour balloons for Ben Bradshaw (who thankfully retained his seat) even though she actually ended up voting Liberal Democrat. We also both went to see Lord Prescott speaking in the street in Exeter during a campaign visit.
Perhaps this election is too recent to view with any real historical perspective. But to summarise in case you’ve forgotten:
Nick Clegg, the previously unknown Lib Dem leader blew everyone away during the TV debates and briefly, amazing as it now seems, became the most popular leader since Churchill. Yet on election night, the Lib Dems in fact did only about as well as normal. Cleggmania now seems like a myth.
The good news, however, was that the people hadn’t forgotten how bad the Tories were and they fell well short of real power, yet again. They hadn’t managed to secure a majority since 1992. Thank God (2017: no longer true. Will do a follow-up piece soon).
The subsequent Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a surprise but there didn’t seem much point Labour clinging onto power. We had clearly lost. But this was new uncharted territory.
The Blair-Brown government achieved a lot of good, so why are Labour politicians so afraid of defending it in public? Here are ten reasons why it was a success…
A lasting peace in Northern Ireland
By 1997, the peace process began under John Major had stalled, partly because the Tories were reliant on the Ulster Unionists to prop up the Tories in parliament during the Major Government’s final days. It took a new government, a new Prime Minister (Tony Blair) and a dynamic new Northern Ireland Secretary (the late Mo Mowlam) to deliver the Good Friday Agreement and the enduring peace which continues to this day. Blair and Mowlam succeeded where thirty years of previous governments had failed.
There are countless Tory myths about the last government’s economic record. Did Labour overspending cause the slump? Clearly not, there was a severe recession throughout the western world: Britain would have been hit anyway. Only the effort to bail out the banks (supported by the Tories) once the slump was in progress put the economy in debt. Should Labour have regulated the markets more tightly? Yes, but again the Tories at the time were arguing for LESS regulation of the markets not more. Did Brown’s actions prevent a recession becoming a depression? Undoubtedly yes. Brown stopped the UK entering the Euro as Chancellor and as PM, his quantative easing policy was widely credited with saving the global banking system. Historians are likely to judge Labour well for dodging the recession which hit many countries at the start of the century and coping well with the global deluge when it came. Should Labour have prepared a “rainy day fund” to prepare the economy during the boom times? In retrospect, yes. Has any other government ever done this? No!
Tough on crime…
The crime rate fell by 44% between 1997 and 2010. Will this continue under Cameron with police numbers being slashed? It seems doubtful. Even Cameron in 201 admitted crime had fallen under Labour making a mockery of his “broken Britain” slogan.
Labour saved the NHS
A disaster area in 1997, Labour bailed the NHS out, leaving it in a good state and with record user approval ratings by 2010. Once again, the Tories have squandered this inheritance and the NHS is in crisis again.
Education, education, education
The period saw huge strides in education. By any measure, standards rose dramatically.
A minimum wage
Fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time on the grounds that it would lead to mass unemployment (wrong!), the minimum wage introduced by Labour is now universally accepted by everyone. The living wage promoted by Ed Miliband is the next step.
Things did get better
Homelessness fell dramatically (under both Thatcher, Major and Cameron it rose dramatically). Civil partnerships were introduced. The House of Lords was reformed. Devolution was introduced for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The gay age of consent was equalised. Britain got better.
Less social division
Labour were never affected by the endless wrangling over the EU that has blighted both of the last Tory Governments. Nor did the government actively seek to turn the public against itself as the Tories have with the public and private sectors.
What will Cameron be remembered for?
Compare his achievements with those listed above. What springs to mind? Austerity. The Bedroom Tax. Gay marriage – a real achievement but only accomplished with Labour’s help. The massive rise in student tuition fees. Cameron’s record has been abysmal.
Win. win, win
If Labour were so bad in office, why did the public elect them three times? The Tories were hated in 1997, leading to the biggest majority achieved by either party being won by Labour (179). After four years in power, the people wanted more. Labour’s 167 seat majority in 2001 was second only to their 1997 one in post-war scale. Neither Attlee or Thatcher ever won such big majorities. In 2005, their majority fell to 66. Even then, this was a big majority, the eighth largest win of the 19 elections held since 1945. No disgrace at all. Even in 2010 under the unpopular Gordon Brown and during a major slump, Labour still did well enough to deny the Tories a majority.
It is a record to be proud of. Labour should not shy away from defending it.
Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections
Edited by: Philip Cowley and Robert Ford
Published by Biteback Books
People who vote Tory are rubbish at sex. Okay, perhaps that’s not fair. But they are worse than at sex than normal people are. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s apparently true. If this troubles you, perhaps defecting to UKIP might help? Or marry someone else.
That’s actually the only real revelation about sex contained within this book of fifty short political essays about elections and the imminent 2015 General Election penned by the leading political academics throughout the land.
The title was worth a try though. After all, one suspects simply calling it 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections might not have attracted fewer readers.
Which would be a shame as the book does address important, interesting if non-sexy questions:
Does canvassing for votes actually make any difference to an election result at all? Why is Wales traditionally so anti-Conservative? Why are there still so few women MPs? Are ethnic minorities really more likely to support Labour? And who lost their party the most support: Blair or Brown?
This is an interesting book then and a useful one. Just don’t go in expecting there to be lots of sex. There isn’t.
1. Labour saved the NHS. The NHS was a disaster area in 1997, underfunded, depressed and blighted by huge waiting lists. Under Labour, the NHS was literally restored to health. Patent satisfaction levels had both witnessed dramatic improvements as had levels of national health h generally. The tragedy is that even since 2010, the Coalition has pushed the NHS once again on the path to destruction.
2. Peace in Northern Ireland. Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has enjoyed a general enduring peace in the last fifteen years. After getting nowhere at all under Mrs Thatcher and fatally stalling over Tory support for the Ulster Unionists keeping his John Major’s government in power, Tony Blair and the late Mo Mowlam ultimately achieved one of the finest achievements of post-war British politics.
3. Crime fell by 44%. Between 1997 and 2010. This, after disastrous rises in the crime rate under Thatcher and Major. Today, thanks to Cameron’s cutbacks, police numbers are again under threat.
4. The minimum wage was introduced. In the face of fierce opposition from the Tories, who falsely claimed it would lead to rising unemployment.
5. Education, education, education. Dramatic improvements were achieved here., for example, those with five good GCSEs rose from 45% to 76% (grade inflation doesn’t explain such a surge).
6. Equality legislation. Civil partnerships were introduced, the gay age of consent was lowered to 16, homosexuality was legalised in the armed forces and the ludicrous Section 28 legislation banning the teaching of “gay propaganda” in schools introduced by the Thatcher Government was finally abolished.
7. Devolution. Devolution was introduced to Scotland and Wales.
8. Other reforms. Smoking was banned in public places. Fox hunting was abolished.
9. The slump would have happened anyway. The 2008 global recession occurred throughout the world and would certainly have occurred to some extent whatever the British government had been doing. Before 2007, Britain had enjoyed a decade of prosperity under Labour even avoiding totally the recession which hit so many western countries after 2001. Labour did not spend recklessly. Gordon Brown as Chancellor was generally criticised more for being too prudent than anything else). The Tories, fatally argued that the markets were OVER-regulated at the time. Brown’s fast action in introducing quantitative easing probably saving the global banking system and preventing a recession becoming a depression. This while, as late as 2007, David Cameron himself argued “our hugely sophisticated financial markets match funds with ideas better than ever before” and claimed that “the world economy is more stable than for a generation”. Perhaps we should all be grateful the Tories were not in power in 2007.
10. If it was bad, why was the government so popular? Labour won the biggest majority achieved by any post-war political party in 1997 (179) achieving the second biggest margin of victory in terms of share of the vote between the first and second party. Labour remained ahead in the polls for virtually all its first term until it achieved the second biggest majority achieved by any party since 1945 in 2001 (166), still a bigger win than any achieved by Thatcher. Clearly people at the time liked Labour in power and wanted them to stay. Even after the controversies over Iraq, Labour’s third win in 2005 was still a considerable victory. And finally in 2010, Labour only narrowly lost power, denying the Tories outright victory.
Clearly, Labour must have been doing something right.
Book review of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion: A Psychohistory by Nick Duffell (Lone Arrow Press)
What if the public school boarding system is poisoning the quality of Britain’s political leadership? This is the intriguing question posed by Nick Duffell’s sequel to his earlier The Making Of Them. With Tony Blair a product of this system, along with David Cameron and possible future leaders like Boris Johnson, this is a concern. Cameron in particularly is flawed in his attitude to women, Europe
“By any analysis the last 50 years in Britain have produced a remarkable lack of noteworthy political leadership.”
But while I went to a (admittedly somewhat elitist) state school and am no great fan of David Cameron, I have little time for Duffell’s argument.
He argues we have had poor leadership in the last fifty years? Since 1964 then? Maybe so. But Blair and Cameron were the only ex-public schoolboys to enter Downing Street during this time. Only fourteen out of these fifty years have been spent under boarding school poshos. The remaining thirty six years were spent under Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Brown. Surely if there has been poor leadership during the time, these oiks should take the blame too?
Most of the arguments collapse if we compare Cameron, to Blair, who did attend boarding school and Margaret Thatcher who didn’t. I actually don’t think Cameron does struggle to form relationships with women or anyone else. There were few women in his government and still are, but this is more due to the Tory Party’s historic paucity of women in general. And even if this were so, why was Tony Blair’s government so successful in promoting women? Public school shows little sign of messing Blair up. Contrast this with Gordon Brown, flying into rages and striking me as tremendously difficult to work with despite (or perhaps because of) his intellectual superiority. Or compare them all to Thatcher, who despite being a woman herself, does not seem to have liked other women much at all to the extent of never promoting them, generally avoiding them and forgetting to include her mother in Who’s Who? But Thatcher and Brown didn’t go to boarding school.
The same applies to Thatcher’s jingoistic flag waving and attacking Europe at every opportunity. Different leaders have different strengths and weaknesses. David Cameron is a weak leader who wants to be Tony Blair but is turning out more like John Major.
But the fact he went to a boarding school is largely irrelevant.
The media seem to have already decided the result. They don’t want Labour to win so therefore they cannot win. Really? Take a look at the following before deciding for yourself…
Labour are ahead in the polls.
As of July 2014, average opinion polling would give Labour a majority of thirty if replicated in a general election. This is easily enough for a five year parliament and a solid basis for an even longer spell in government. No recent opinion polls have given the Tories anything like enough to come first, let alone enough to win a majority in the House of Commons.
Nobody likes the Tories.
They haven’t won a General Election since April 1992. That’s twenty two years! Many current voters were not even born then. Even in 2010, in the throes of a global recession and with Gordon Brown less than popular, they were unable to achieve outright victory.
Many Lib Dems will flock to Labour.
The Lib Dem leadership have totally betrayed their supporters and their progressive origins. The party now has more in common with George Osborne than Lloyd George. Some Lib Dems sadly will never vote again. Some might drift towards UKIP. Far more will move towards Labour.
UKIP are hurting the Tories more than anyone else.
Yes, it would be foolish to deny that UKIP are taking votes off all the major parties. But as a right wing party they are clearly hitting the Tories hardest.
More voters care about the NHS than anything else.
This is Labour’s issue. Labour created the NHS and saved it from destruction after 1997. People care about their health more than anything else.
The last Labour Government had a great record.
A lasting peace in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. A decade of prosperity. A dramatic fall in the levels of crime. The introduction of the minimum wage. And if Labour were so awful why did they win three landslide victories in a row, including the two largest since the war? Even in 2010, their actual defeat was small enough to deny the Tories a majority.
Ed Miliband has been a success as leader.
Contrary to media myth, Miliband has connected strongly with public opinion on the issues of newspaper phone hacking, rising energy prices and the ongoing struggle to make ends meet.
The bedroom tax has been a disastrous failure.
Ill conceived, malicious and badly planned, it is David Cameron’s Poll Tax.
The Tories are still hopelessly divided over Europe.
EU membership is guaranteed under Labour. Under Cameron, as under past Tory governments, years of uncertainty, division and infighting are assured.
Nobody is happier under the Tories.
The last few years have witnessed endless cuts, uncertainty and insecurity. It is time to put this to an end and restore Labour to their rightful place in government.
John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was characterised as a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and there has been nothing like it on British TV since. It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.
Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition, which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance, had never looked weaker.
There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue throughout the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (its main character, Jim Hacker MP was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise, Central in 1984.
The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact the show worked at all. Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable. To ensure topicality, Spitting Image was produced close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live). The show was often on the mark and frequently very funny.
Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.
Some caricatures required less imagination, however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):
Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?
Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!
Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (in a rather sexist fashion) in a man’s suit, something which may actually have helped her image.. John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot who was being secretly controlled by Thatcher, before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”). Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.
Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never served in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.
Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere, notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence, either.
It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the Royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere, Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.
It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He was soon being depicted as a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.
The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, John Thompson, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.
Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.
But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage, perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?
“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.
Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.
How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.
As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”
But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.” The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.
Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.
Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).
But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).
But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.
“All political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell. Margaret Thatcher was famously and dramatically driven from Downing Street by her own party and her own intense unpopularity. Others go more gently into the night and more gradually.
Tony Benn’s influence has been on the wane since his narrow defeat in the 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership contest. The party changed under Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, then Brown but the former Viscount Stansagate did not change himself. He just grew older. These final diaries find him in his eighties, a widower and out of parliament as the successful Blair era gives way to the more calamitous leadership of Gordon Brown.
Benn seems increasingly a sad figure by this point, increasingly relishing the prospect of death (the sentiment, “I do actually feel as if I am coming to the end of my life” recurs frequently). But the eighth and final volume of his diaries nevertheless remains compelling. He remains friends with the actress Saffron Burrows and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and his political insights remain as sharp as ever whether one agrees with them or not.
Sadly, a bout of ill health in 2009 brought his diaries – which he had written on and off since his wartime childhood and consistently since his return to the Commons in 1963 – to an end. Benn summarises the last five years (which have been dominated by the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition) in the few final pages, a much less satisfying read than the diaries themselves.
But who can complain? Benn’s legacy, in addition to his political achievements (and failings) will undoubtedly be these diaries which have chronicled his own long political career and indeed all political life during the last half century.
Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply he worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Sir Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?
In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.
Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?
The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven to eccentric extremes by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly former leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary, William Hague.
William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures and his over-enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.
Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more eccentric choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader, Michael Howard in 2003.
In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.
Determined not to see his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.
Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.
His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been more eccentric.
Other nearly men…
RA (“RAB”) Butler: The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Betrayed by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.
Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.
Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.
David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.
History is likely to be kinder to the Blair-Brown Government than some contemporary critics, including, for example, the Cameron Government have been.
Day after day we are told that the last government wasted billions of the nation’s finances after 2008. The reality is that Brown Government handled the global banking crisis as well as any government could have done, indeed perhaps slightly better. Cameron’s Tories certainly seemed clueless on the subject at the time.
Indeed, Brown’s introduction of quantative easing most likely saved the global banking system. The Tory charge that the government had failed to save up any “rainy day” money during the years of prosperity is weak too. Levels of debt were no worse before 2008 than they had been under the Major years.
In short, if the Blair-Brown government is guilty of not legislating to restrain the markets and not clearing its debts before 2008 (and it is), it is no more guilty than any other previous post-war government was. And for all his faults as a leader (which are not insignificant), Gordon Brown’s leadership probably prevented a recession from becoming a depression.
All in all, with three election victories, the salvation of the NHS, a dramatic drop in the crime rate, a decade of prosperity and the Good Friday Agreement, it is not a bad record.
Labour have always been poor at boasting about their achievements, however, and memoirs like this by Gordon Brown’s ex-spin doctor Damian McBride which draw attention to the seedier side of New Labour, do not help.
Released in time for this year’s Labour Party Conference, the damaging effect of the book was ultimately cancelled out by the impact of the Daily Mail’s stupendous gaffe over Ralph Miliband.
But let’s not pretend New Labour come well out of this book. They don’t, simply because McBride’s memoirs revive memories of the unhappy days of the Brown premiership
McBride is clearly highly intelligent and writes well. Against all the odds, he comes across (occasionally) as a likeable figure. He was and is loyal to his former master Gordon Brown. He was a success as Treasury Head of Communications from 2003 until 2007, perhaps partly explaining why Brown enjoyed such popularity as Chancellor. The wheels came off after 2007 when Brown became PM. McBride had lost all the contacts at the Treasury he had relied upon. After the “election that never was” things went from bad to worse although McBride was felled by an email scandal in 2009 so escapes responsibility for Mrs Duffy and the other mishaps of Brown’s last year.
McBride’s competence is surprising bearing in mind he seems to have been a functioning alcoholic throughout this period. Only a tragicomic episode at the 2005 Party Conference where he was found fast asleep naked and face down on bed and unable to be woken caused him major trouble. Amusingly, after no one could wake him, Ed Balls attempted to, before reeling back after the naked drunken semi-conscious McBride apparently mistook him for a female bed partner and made an amorous grab for him.
Contrary to rumour, Eds Balls and Miliband do not come off badly in the book and are merely harmed by the reminder of their close association with Brown (which is hardly a revelation anyway). Brown too although prone to wail “How could he/she/they do this to me?” when anything went wrong, does not come across as all bad either. Although almost comically incapable of speaking fluently and naturally in public (McBride describes how Brown’s visage would suffer because his brain would be working at numerous levels at once), his decision not to exploit his family for party political gain (something that annoyed Cameron, who did, intensely) is admirable.
Damian McBride has written a memoir which (after some dry early chapters) is highly readable. He undoubtedly did his bit to ensure the success of the last government, yet the excess of spin and false briefing which he played a part in undoubtedly ultimately proved pernicious and self destructive.
Nor do I share his view that the Blair/Brown rivalry helped the government, giving it an edge which McBride compares to the healthy competition between Pepsi and Cola at a time when there was no serious competition in town. In truth, the feud between the two leaders poisoned the mood of an otherwise successful government and was lucky not to split Labour as the Liberals were split in the 1920s.
Let us hope the potential familial rivalries between the brothers Miliband or even the husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper do not prove as harmful to Labour in the future.
Who should have been Prime Minster but never got the chance?
(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)
(Life: 1906-1963. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1950-51. Labour leader: 1955-1963)
The case for: With the exception of Neil Kinnock, no post-war politician has done the hardest job in British politics (Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) for as long as Hugh Gaitskell did: over seven years. A youthful Chancellor during Attlee’s last days, Gaitskell had already made an enemy of the unofficial leader of the party’s Left, Nye Bevan. Always a right-winger in the party, Gaitskell struggled to prevent full blown civil war both before and after their heavy 1959 General Election defeat despite a tearful conference address in which he pledged to “fight and fight again” to save the party he loved. Tragically, just as Labour seemed to be finally pulling together, Gaitskell suddenly fell ill and died in early 1963. His successor Harold Wilson, boosted by Tory chaos after the Profumo Affair, led Labour back into power in October 1964. Many, particularly acolytes like George Brown and Roy Jenkins felt it should have been Hugh. Or failing that, them.
The case against: To be fair, the public never loved Gaitskell. He led Labour to defeat in 1959 and might have done again in 1964. As an adulterer himself (he was having an affair with James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s wife – some even suspected Gaitskell was poisoned by the KGB) he might have lacked moral authority during the Tories’ Profumo sex scandal. Wilson himself, indeed, only won power himself very narrowly after his election as leader prompted a surge in Labour popularity. Would Gaitskell have done the same?
The verdict: We will never know.
(Life: 1920-2002. Home Secretary 1965-1967. 1974-1976. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1967-1970. EEC President: 1977-1981. SDP leader: 1982-1983)
The case for: Jenkins’ spell as Home Secretary must rank as one of the most successful ministries ever. In just a few short years, he oversaw the abolition of capital punishment, ended the death penalty, legalised homosexuality and liberalised the abortion and divorce laws. Few politicians changed British life as much as he did.
The case against: With his posh manner, liking for the fine things in life and speech impediment, “Woy” Jenkins was often described as “nature’s old Etonian” even though unlike his colleagues Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, he was actually from genuine working class stock, in fact a Welsh mining community. But his position as a right-wing pro-European was unfashionable at the time. He scored poorly in the 1976 leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation and after a spell as President of the EEC returned as a founder member of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. The SDP really did seem set to win power for a period in 1981, but a combination of internal feuding, Thatcher’s Falklands victory and an unfair electoral system saw them perform badly in 1983, scoring almost as many votes as Labour but scarcely any seats. In old age, Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform as a Lib Dem peer (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of historical figures such as Gladstone and Asquith.
The verdict: He never led Britain but undoubtedly changed the nation more than many who have.
(Born: 1917. Defence Secretary: 1964-1970. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1974-1979. Deputy Labour leader: 1981-1983).
The case for: Healey was a familiar figure on TV in the Seventies and Eighties, famed not only for his distinctive eyebrows and sense of humour but also for his formidable intellect, debating power and competence. An ex-communist and (like Jenkins) a Second World War veteran, Healey oversaw the British military disengagement “East of Suez” in the Sixties and endured a rocky ride as Chancellor during the 1976 IMF Crisis, famously turning his car away from the airport where he was planning a conference trip abroad when the crisis grew too severe. In fact, the loan was later recognised as unnecessary and due to a treasury error. After Labour’s 1979 defeat, many were astonished when the elderly, scruffy and un-telegenic left winger Michael Foot beat the only slightly younger but far more popular Healey for the Labour leadership in 1980. Did the members planning to defect to the SDP vote for Foot in the hope of strengthening their cause? A few votes would have made all the difference. At any rate, Foot, though a decent and highly intellectual man proved a disastrous leader. The party split, the new SDP rejecting Labour’s new anti-nuclear and anti-EEC positions. Healey himself fought off a serious left-wing challenge for the Deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981. Both Labour and the SDP performed disastrously in the 1983 election. But Healey, to his credit, never deserted Labour.
The case against: Healey would have almost certainly fared better as Labour leader than Foot did after 1980 and may well have prevented the damaging SDP split. But whether even he could have prevented Margaret Thatcher being returned in the post-Falklands 1983 election (winning a majority of 144) is open to question. Particularly as Healey could sometimes be quite gaffe-prone himself during election campaigns, accusing Thatcher of “glorifying in slaughter” in 1983 and suggesting the Russians wanted a Labour victory before the 1987 contest.
The verdict: The best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps. Lord Healey has now outlived virtually all of his ex-colleagues and rivals. He is ninety-six.
(Life: 1938-1994. Labour leader: 1992-1994).
The case for: Labour was at a very low ebb indeed when John Smith was elected leader in July 1992. Labour had just suffered her fourth defeat, this time during a recession. Many doubted Labour would ever win again. As leader, Smith projected an air of competency which Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock had always lacked. Though his election as leader generated less excitement than Blair’s did in 1994, his strong often witty Commons performances, his success in abolishing the union block vote and the total Tory collapse after Black Wednesday, the pit closures, Back to Basics, the Maastricht Tory civil war and Tory sleaze made a Labour victory in 1996 or 1997 inevitable. His sudden death following a heart attack in May 1994 triggered a period of genuine mourning.
The case against: As the architect of Labour’s unpopular tax plans, Shadow Chancellor Smith is sometimes blamed for Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat. He was also accused of being too laidback as leader and effectively hoping victory would fall into his lap. However, despite no New Labour-esque attempts to woo business or the press, in 1994 Smith’s strategy seemed to be working.
The verdict: The Tory disintegration was so total under John Major that had Smith lived it is almost inconceivable that he would not have become Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would now be seventy-five.
(Born: 1965. Foreign Secretary: 2007-2010).
The case for: Despite being the more experienced, better known and older of the two Miliband brothers, David narrowly lost the 2010 leadership contest to his brother Ed despite winning more votes from MPs and party members.
The case against: Although probably better on TV than his brother, David has endured image issues too (notably the “Banana Incident”) and lacked the killer instinct to take a stance for or against Gordon Brown at critical times in government. But ultimately his Blairism and (like Hilary Clinton in 2008) his support for the Iraq War and somewhat arrogant manner probably cost him victory.
The verdict: Unproven. Ed Milband seems neither as bad as his detractors say, nor his brother as good. And with David Miliband still under fifty, he could yet make a comeback. True, he’s not an MP. But then neither is Boris Johnson (who is the same age). The tragedy is that as brothers neither can easily serve under the other.
As Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right and also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…
With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of the four time election winner pinned inside his school locker. This only changed when he began experimenting with conservatism at university.
By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.
Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank” by some. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major complained that he could not sack, in comments that were accidentally caugh ton air. There seemed to be no stopping him.
That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably as a preparatory measure in case Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997(a defeat which was almost universally expected, by this point) and then stand for leader then?
Few had anticipated the Tories would lose quite as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority achieved by any party since the war.
Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven to be his political nemesis.
The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won easily. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.
Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s old rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?
But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.
Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, slightly hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.
Alternatively, had Labour won by a smaller margin in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.
Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was quite sincere and not a cynical tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.
Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.
But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.
Some people got very angry with the Lib Dems after the Coalition was formed in 2010. They felt the party had betrayed its progressive roots for a sniff of power.
This is very unfair. The inconclusive election result virtually guaranteed the Lib Dems a shot a role in the next government whatever happened. As Labour’s Andrew Adonis reveals, they had betrayed their progressive tradition long before then.
Nick Clegg and David Laws were, to all intents and purposes, Tories from the outset. Had they not been passionately pro-European at a time when (then as now) the Tories were tearing themselves to bits over the issue, they would doubtless have joined the Tories on entering politics in the Nineties.
Laws, the author of the main previous account of the Coalition talks, 22 Days in May has been candid about his admiration for George Osborne.
He also openly complained:
“Many Lib Dems were as disenfranchised with Labour as they had earlier been with the Conservatives….the endless centralising and micromanaging, the failure to embrace radical constitutional reform…and the lack of progress on social mobility and improving public services…”
Adonis is rightly astonished by Laws’ words. The Lib Dem seems to have forgotten the revival of the NHS, the thousands of new teachers and nurses, the introduction of devolution, reform of the House of Lords, civil partnerships, the introduction of the minimum wage. Labour in fact had much to be proud of during their thirteen years in office.
But Laws and Clegg weren’t interested in all that. They had no intention of fulfilling their promise to abolish student tuition fees either. They went through the charade of talks with Labour only to fatally undermine them by issuing bogus reports of “bad body language” from the Labour side, a charge which is impossible to verify. The Lib Dems in truth wanted to be with the Tories all along.
Some on the Labour side did their bit too, former cabinet ministers David Blunkett and John Reid each publicly doing their bit to make it harder for a Lib-Lab pact to work. As in 1950 and 1978, Labour did not fight hard enough to keep hold of the reins of power. Once they had relinquished it, it was easier for a new government to trash their record while in office.
But the Lib Dems are the real villains here. To add insult to injury, Clegg dealt his party a very poor hand in negotiations with the Tories, failing even to secure a department for itself.
The end result is that we effectively have an undiluted Tory Government committed to an austerity budget which isn’t working. This is compulsive reading, particularly for anyone contemplating a Coalition with the Lib Dems in 2015.
You have been warned.