Brown’s Suffolk holiday a bleak affair - Mandelson
The Week in Politics with GRAHAM DINES
GORDON Brown proclaimed his two weeks’ holiday in Suffolk in 2008 relaxing, enjoyable, and a happy family occasion.
The truth is very different, according to Lord Mandelson. He says the Browns’ break at Shadingfield Hall was scarred by the bitter fighting in the Labour Party.
In his memoirs “The Third Man: Life at the heart of New Labour” – published this week and serialised in The Times - Mandelson writes: “Gordon was ostensibly on holiday by the Suffolk seaside. In fact, he was in nearly constant contact with aides, and increasingly with me.
“His mood was bleak. That was nothing compared with the rest of the party.”
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The only person in the Labour hierarchy who could – and probably should – have challenged Brown’s faltering leadership was Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
He bottled it. Despite appalling by-election defeats in Crewe and in Glasgow, he couldn’t find it in himself to knife the Prime Minister.
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Instead, he wrote a newspaper article entitled “Labour at War” which argued that Labour had to build a sense of empowerment and society, a key policy of David Cameron whom Miliband said was “likeable and sometimes hard to disagree with.”
The summer of 2008 also saw Tony Blair in despair. According to Mandelson, the former Prime Minister said: “It’s all very sad. We’ve got to help him without letting him lead us to disaster.”
It was Brown and his key lieutenants who forced to Blair to stand down in 2007 to give Gordon his turn at being Prime Minister. For 10 years, Blair had left Brown dangling, reneging on a deal which made him Labour leader in 1993 but would step down after six years.
Mandelson told Blair: “You saved your own skin by constantly stringing Gordon along, and then landed him on the rest of us when you left.”
Blair wanted Miliband to take over – “he’s not perfect but he has matured.”
But Miliband would not strike. It was left to baby-faced International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, backed by Mandelson, and Chancellor Alistair Darling, to deliver a damning assessment.
At an election planning meeting, deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman proposed the campaign slogan around the three Fs –“future, family and fairness.”
“Futile, finished and f***ed,” Alexander countered.
Of course, the 2010 election defeat for Labour and Brown was not as disastrous as had been forecast during the previous 30 months.
The Tories could not see off Labour because of the in-built inequalities of the electoral system and their continuing dreadful performance in Scotland, where Labour is at its strongest.
With the Tories short of an overall majority and opening talks with the Liberal Democrats, Brown flew to Scotland on the Saturday after the election, returned the next day, clung to office, and then reluctantly agreed to step down after a Labour leadership contest.
Senior Labour figures John Reid and David Blunkett said publicly what Blair said privately. The electorate would not tolerate a second Labour leader not elected by the public. Brown had to swallow his pride and walk away.
Miliband is, of course, one of the contestants in the Labour leadership contest and recently gave the Keir Hardie lecture in Merthyr Tydfil, Hardie’s old constituency town.
Miliband set out his stall: “We meet at a difficult and serious time. A time of lost hopes and lost power, of broken dreams and impending nightmares. We confront a government weak in principle but sure of purpose.
“And be under no illusion as to what that purpose is: To broker a centre right consensus in Britain, all the while claiming to be ‘progressive’, which will exclude Labour from government for a long time, and hurt those most in need in our country.
“The Cameron vision must not to be underestimated. It is to recreate in the 21st century the same coalition that dominated the 20th century, that between economic liberals and partisan Conservatives. Working people left out, Labour kept out.
“It is the task of anyone who wishes to be Labour leader, and of our movement as a whole, to understand how we find ourselves in this position, and to break its dynamics and generate a different outcome. That is what this leadership election should be about.
“We achieved great things and won great victories in government. I think we were insufficiently proud of our record during the election; but we lost the trust of the people and ceased to be the repository of their hopes for a better tomorrow.
“We lost the trust of the people and in a democracy that’s a very big problem. In the 13 years of our government we lost more than four million votes and 180 seats.” Miliband concluded: “I agreed completely with Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in 2007, that we needed renewal. I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity-drenched culture.
“ I agreed with him when he said that we needed greater coherence as a government, particularly in relation to child poverty and equality. I agreed with him on the importance of party reform and a meaningful internationalism that would be part of a unified government strategy. I agreed that we needed a civic morality to champion civility when confronting a widespread indifference to others.
“But, it didn’t happen,” said Miliband.