Trying to follow the impending British general election from afar, I’ve been reading The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley, chief political commentator for the Observer. Eight hundred pages long, and crammed with “inside” political gossip (or credible intelligence, if you prefer), it’s a book as hard to admire as it is to put down. Though the text is bespattered with authenticating footnotes (many say no more than “Conversation, Cabinet minister”), it reads like airport fiction. Its flawed (and credible) hero is Tony Blair, its cardboard villain Gordon Brown.
The End of the Party seems to have gone to the printers in November 2009. The plot of the book then appeared unassailable. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ lead over Labour in the polls stood at twelve, fifteen, sometimes twenty points, pointing to Brown’s humiliation in the 2010 election (which will almost certainly take place on May 6). The commentariat had appointed Cameron as Britain’s next prime minister, and Gordon Brown and his party were yesterday’s men.
But for the last few months and weeks, the polls have been tightening. The Conservatives are still ahead (averaging out polls over the last twenty days, the useful site UK Polling Report puts the Conservatives at 38 percent, Labour at 31 percent, and the Liberal Democrats at 19 percent). Because the Lib Dems have 63 seats in the present parliament, it’s going to be a far tougher battle than was predicted a few months ago for either the Conservatives or Labour to gain an overall majority. There’s now much talk of a hung parliament and a minority government working in coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
There’s also talk—unthinkable when Rawnsley finished his gravedigging job for Brown’s corpse—of the no longer inconceivable possibility of a Labour victory. On March 25, Andy Beckett wrote a long and characteristically thoughtful piece in the Guardian titled “What Happens If Cameron Loses?”; on March 28, Matthew D’Ancona, the former editor of the Spectator, imagined Gordon Brown relishing his first morning after an election that returns him to Downing Street, while the Conservatives tear themselves apart in their search for David Cameron’s replacement.
The End of the Party begins in June 2001, at the start of Blair’s second term as prime minister, and ends with the closing ceremony at the Labour Party conference in Brighton on September 30 last year. The plot is a smooth tragic arc: the noble enterprise of New Labour, as it was conceived by the triumvirate of Blair, Brown, and Peter Mandelson in the early ’90s, is led to inevitable and “cataclysmic” defeat by the incompetence and odious character of Mr. Brown, whom Rawnsley represents as a jealous, secretive, foul-tempered, paranoid bully.
When attributing lines of dialogue to his characters, Rawnsley usually settles for the straightforward “X said,” but not in Brown’s case. Before each set of quote marks opens, we have to read, “Brown barked,” “Brown growled,” “Brown shouted,” “Brown yelled,” “Brown raged,” lest we forget the man’s an ogre. When Brown, as Chancellor, is resident at 11 Downing Street, and goes next door to visit Blair at No. 10, he doesn’t walk but “thunders” there. Such verbal abuse, inflicted by an author on a character, is liable to backfire, and, fifty pages into the book, Rawnsley had me rooting keenly for Gordon Brown. I’m in no position to judge what basis there is in fact for the multitude of allegations that Rawnsley makes against the prime minister, but many if not most of them sound like Blairite folklore and embellished hearsay, picked up from unnamed ministers, MPs, and civil servants.
Rawnsley’s portrait of Blair is often admiring, always forgiving and understanding. He writes about Blair’s most calamitous mistakes (not least his toadying to Bush as he dragged Britain into the Iraq war) with the solicitude of a Trollope following the progress of political heroes like Phineas Finn and Plantaganet Palliser. Where Blair lives in several dimensions in The End of the Party, Brown is flat on the page, an inert, repetitive cartoon whose sole function in the book is to scheme Blair’s downfall, then squander his precious legacy. Even Brown’s indisputable achievements, like his swift and decisive handling of the banking crisis, hailed by Paul Krugman in a Times column that began with the (unironic) question, “Has Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, saved the world financial system?” are grudgingly acknowledged and belittled. It is typical of Rawnsley’s style and method that he devotes a sour paragraph to the Krugman column, telling us that (a) he himself told Brown about it over the phone and (b) Brown ordered his office to distribute this flattering piece of news to the media within the hour. So it turns into yet another story of Brown’s intolerable egotism—a quality by no means lacking in his author.
The recent polls hardly suggest a revival of enthusiasm for Brown and Labour; they seem more to reflect a nationwide puzzlement over what Cameron’s “modernised” Toryism actually means. At last year’s Conservative party conference, his own loyalists appeared baffled when Cameron said such un-Toryish things as “Vote blue, go green” and “You could sum up my priorities in just three letters: NHS.” When Tony Blair came back to the campaign trail on March 30, he derided Cameron’s slogan, “Time For A Change” as “the most vacuous in politics,” which it surely is.
For me, the oddest aspect of the current polls is the relatively poor performance of the Lib Dems, who, under their then leader, Charles Kennedy, took 22 percent of the vote in the 2005 election. Since then, they have escaped largely unscathed from the great “expenses scandal” of last year, orchestrated by the Telegraph (which had obtained a bootleg disk of every MP’s claims under the Additional Costs Allowance), and which caused a media-led wave of public contempt for politicians, especially Labour and Conservative ones. Why haven’t the Lib Dems benefitted from this? They have an articulate, personable, youngish leader (Nick Clegg is 43) and their Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, a professional economist, is widely admired across the country for his wit as well as for his grasp of fiscal policy. (Nearly everyone, including the studio audience, agreed that Cable handily won the first televised debate of the election.) On March 30, the Lib Dems unveiled their first election posters, advertising the Labservative party. Against a black background, the logos of the Tories and Labour, tree and rose, are merged; the party slogan is “For More of the Same.” Amusing as the posters are, I doubt if they’ll gain the Lib Dems many votes. Stuck at between 17 percent and 20 percent, they shouldn’t allow themselves to be seen as the jokers on the sidelines of a two-party election—although one new poll, published on April 1, and possibly an outlier, does suggest the Lib Dems may after all be on the rise.
Meanwhile Andrew Rawnsley, a jealous author, whose deterministic plot is now threatening to unravel, continues his assault on Brown’s character in his weekly columns for the Observer.
Andrew Rawnsley, The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Viking, 2010)