Musings on ‘The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour’ by Andrew Rawnsley

The End of The Party is the best political book I have ever read. Andrew Rawnsley backs up rigorous facts and data with finely honed journalistic prose that maintains ones interest in a 700+ page book that reads at times like a thriller. This work, chronicling the history and decline of New Labour from 2001, is heavily sourced and reliable, benefiting from hundreds of witnesses and thousands of quotes, many accumulated from Rawnsley’s unrivalled access to those at the top thanks to his position as Political correspondent of the Observer. A large book that I have been reading since August, I shall not attempt to delve into the detail and recall everything. Rather, I shall discuss the key insights, revelations and characters that emerged in this brilliant volume.

One of the early themes that emerge in this book is the complacency and inflexibility that results from having a large parliamentary majority. Despite billing itself as a radical and reforming party, New Labour did not make great headway with public service reform and spending increases in its first term. The security of a massive majority and a wish to keep this intact by pursuing prudent governance and spending resulted in incremental changes. Labour and Blair specifically, set their stall out to make up for the lack of progress in the first term and be more radical in the second.

This book covers a great block to reform and innovation, a shadow government that rivalled Downing Street and held onto the purse strings jealously: The Treasury. By way of compensation for Blair getting the Labour leadership and subsequently the Premiership, Brown was given unprecedented power as Chancellor. Seething with frustration at the audacity of his former colleague and perceived inferior at stealing a leadership that he thought was his by right. As a result, Brown frustrated Blair and Ministers by over scrutinising and blocking spending plans, and deliberately withholding information about upcoming budgets and autumn statements.

Rawnsley is rightly critical of the sofa style government that Tony Blair adopted. This involved giving short shrift to the role of cabinet, instead forming policy in one to one meetings with ministers as well as press officers and senior civil servants having heavy involvement in government direction. This in turn led to an unfortunate governance through news announcements, with ministers and departments caught off guard and often in reality unable to put into practice policies and initiatives announced from on high.

The War on Terror revealed both the best and worst aspects of Tony Blair. He was at his height when standing in solidarity with the Americans after the appalling slaughter of thousands on September 11th, offering the hand of friendship and rightly describing the attack as an assault not just on America, but as one on liberty and democracy globally. His quick selling of this message and building a global alliance against al Qaida gained him plaudits and an enhanced standing, able better to promote the need to deal with them and not descend into instant retribution.

Iraq, as history shows, was more problematic. Rawnsley is clear that he thinks that Blair was sincere in his belief that Saddam was a threat and murderous despot who needed to be gotten rid of. He is critical of this affair on several counts however. He thinks that Blair did not make good enough use of the capital he enjoyed with the president, neglecting opportunities to persuade him to give the UN route more time, and not pushing hard enough for the Americans to adopt the notion of statecraft and rebuilding the country, despairing instead privately at the lack of will across the pond to make this a priority. In addition, his acceptance of loose intelligence, allowing of spin doctors to reeve this into a dossier that portrayed Saddam as a more imminent and well equipped tyrant than was alas the case Rawnsley does not brand as lying, but clear cherry picking and neglection, which coupled with the subtle pre-war shift by Blair on the dubious weapons claims to emphasis on the indisputable evil, crimes against humanity and mal intent of Saddam’s regime reflects Blair’s willingness to pursue the removal of Saddam for its own moral sake.

The book provides a compelling insight into the daily infighting, rivalry and fratricide of New Labour. A grudge bearing Brown allowing his inner circle to brief against and destroy the career of Peter Mandelson, the begging of Cherie Blair and Tony’s intimates to remove the Chancellor who was briefing against him and his allies with no pretence of disguise, the joy with which Charles Clarke and David Blunkett took in winding up and defying Brown while he was Chancellor. It is amazing the levels of pettiness and childish grudges that existed at the highest echelons of government. The author and reader alike is left wondering aloud just how much more could have been achieved with cooperation and cohesiveness.

After Labours much reduced majority at the 2005 election and the undermining of Blair’s authority, this descended into open warfare. Brown’s thugs Damien McBride and Ed Balls would do their upmost to destroy Blair’s colleagues and the man himself, undermining him to the press. Even the placid Ed Miliband entered Blair’s office at one point asking him what the point of going on. Brown himself would often storm into the Prime Minister’s office and launch tirades against him such as ‘Why won’t you fucking go?’ This culminated in 2006 with a coup launched by Ed Balls and Tom Watson with Brown’s blessing, gaining signatories to a letter asking him to resign, Watson himself delivering a letter to Blair. His time was up now, and Blair failed to counter strike when many Labour MP’s who were not keen on a Brown Premiership urged him to take on the plotters. Up unto the end Blair held a certain amount of obligation and respect for the man who had tried so long to bring him down, consistently ignoring chances and pleas to take him on.

Brown sold himself as a fresh start from Blair, less spin, infighting and media manipulation. Rawnsley reveals however that he was just as guilty, just less skilful. Brown stoked the fires of speculation about an autumn election of 2007, to potentially capitalise on his honeymoon of popularity. Brown overplayed his hand however, choosing counsel of caution and marring his reputation in the process. The popularity backlash over this debacle of teasing and dithering led to further fratricide, only this time to allies, with McBride and Balls briefing the press that it was Douglas Alexander’s and Ed Miliband’s fault that a snap election was called. This goes some way to explaining today’s enmity between the latter two and Balls. Gordon Brown was also heavy handed and abusive to his placid former ally and Chancellor, Alistair Darling, undermining him at every turn and trying to dictate policy from on high. Further plotting ensued in 2009 and 2010 when chances emerged for David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and Harriet Harman to depose the unpopular Prime Minister. However, a mixture of hesitation and luck stalled this, as well as during the latter attempt, the intervention of Peter Mandelson against the plotters despite sharing their concerns. Rawnsley is not shy in laying bare the delicious irony of the fact that Mandelson, cast into the wilderness by Brown his arch enemy for years, was then brought back into the fold by a desperate Prime Minister, becoming a crutch, close advisor, mouthpiece and the de facto Deputy Prime Minister.

This is a potted summary of just some of the main themes and events in this fascinating history that I cannot truly do justice to, anyone who wants to know more I’d recommend reading it for yourself. I’ll close however on the two main characters that this book presents.

Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown comes out of this book looking glowing, rather flawed and much tarnished. Blair is shown to be a great communicator who is an election winner and understands the centre ground of politics. A decent people manager, he was able to transcend the left-right divide and make Labour electable. More comfortable on the international stage, he is rightly praised for his instrumental impact on securing Northern Irish Peace deals and also the 2012 Olympics. Nevertheless, on the international side he also became perhaps too enamoured with the use of military actions, successful in his early years, but perhaps making him too idealistic and naive about the doctrine of liberal interventionism, this combined with underplaying his hand and influence with Bush leaves lasting scars. Further, his ruling through headlines and respect for wealth put strains on his relationship with the party. Brown meanwhile appears a Nixon like figure, paranoid and coveting power at all costs. An astute economist and a good Chancellor, his plotting and briefing made him a lot of enemies, and he was not cut out ultimately for leadership, with poor public relations skills, less understanding for the centre ground than Blair and terrible people management skills being the hallmarks of his premiership. High handedness and skulduggery abounded, Brown preferring bullying to debate, with Downing Street Staff and ministers subject to foul mouthed tirades, threats, flying objects and borderline physical abuse. Well intentioned but extremely poorly executed, he made a balls up of his time at Number 10, a redeeming feature being his domestic and global leadership during the financial crisis. It’s a crying shame that the vanity and enmity of the two could not be overcome as when they were on good terms Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown were an unbeatable political force, and I believe they would put this coalition to bed handily in 2015 were they at Labours helm right now.

A brilliant read: 9/10

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