Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 3 2003
Stephen Frears’s dramatisation of the events that led to Gordon Brown not fighting Tony Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994, The Deal, screened by Channel Four last Sunday, was an entertaining confection — of that there can be no doubt.
But whether it was an accurate portrayal of what went on before and during the legendary meeting in the Granita restaurant in Islington is another matter.
As one Vikki Leffman put it in a letter to the Guardian this week:
“Some minor points which could have been easily checked were not. How do I know? I served the Blair/Brown table and owned the restaurant. No tablecloths, wrong table, we never served rabbit, Gordon did eat, the walls were blue . . . But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?”
It wasn’t just the tablecloths. The Deal was also weak on the political context. The impression it gave was that Brown would have been a shoo-in for the Labour leadership on John Smith’s death if only he hadn’t waited until after Smith’s funeral to start thinking about running — rather than jumping the gun as Blair did — and if only Peter Mandelson hadn’t backed Blair.
The reality was different. Brown had certainly been the most favourably positioned of Labour’s younger politicans to make a leadership bid on the previous occasion on which there had been a vacancy — in 1992, after the resignation of Neil Kinnock.
Then he had come under strong pressure, not only from Labour’s “modernisers” but also from a large part of its soft Left (including Tribune), to take his chance. He was seen as the only credible challenger to Smith, the decent, honest but terminally dull “safe pair of hands” who was the union barons’ choice. Brown seriously considered his options until the very last minute — I remember holding open a slot in Tribune one press day in anticipation of an announcement from him that he was entering the fray. But the announcement never came. Brown bottled out, pledged his support for Smith, and Smith won easily against Bryan Gould, whose campaign was doomed from the start by his fundamentalist Euroscepticism.
By the time Smith died in May 1994, however, Brown was no longer Labour’s up-and-coming golden boy. Appointed shadow chancellor by Smith in July 1992, he quickly alienated much of his erstwhile support. During that summer, as the pound came under increasing speculative pressure in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, he refused to argue for the devaluation that just about every economist believed the British economy needed. Then, when that devaluation came so spectacularly on “Black Wednesday”, he refused to welcome it. For the next 18 months, he stubbornly stuck to his guns, rejecting all calls to attack the beleaguered Major Government from the Left. Instead, he lambasted its tax increases.
In retrospect, this might appear a strategy of genius — but that wasn’t the way it played at the time in the Labour Party. From 1992 to 1994, Brown was subjected to an endless barrage of criticism from the left and the unions for failing to embrace a radical Keynesian economic policy. He responded by adopting what one colleague described as a “bunker mentality” — and his popularity in the party plummeted. He only just scraped on to the National Executive Committee in autumn 1993.
Meanwhile, Blair’s stock rose inexorably. As shadow Home Secretary from 1992, he made an extraordinary impact, outflanking the Tories on law and order with his rhetoric of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” and “responsibilities as well as rights”. By late 1993, it was Blair not Brown who was Labour most lustrous rising star.
The point here is that — whatever deal was struck at Granita — Brown was by then negotiating from a position of weakness. By the time of the meeting, Blair had established himself as the hot favourite to win the Labour leadership. If Brown had decided to enter the contest, he would not have won — and he knew it. He might even have lost his job as shadow chancellor.
His only strong card was that his entering the race would syphon off some of Blair’s support — possibly enough to allow Robin Cook or another soft left candidate to come through the middle. (Cook was certainly considering his options at the time: I know because I kept open a slot on the New Statesman on press day for an announcement that never came . . .) Brown knew that if he declared he would not stand, no one else would enter the contest apart from the no-hopers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, and Blair would become unstoppable.
So both men had an incentive to come to an arrangement. But if Blair really did tell Brown that, in return for not standing, Brown could be not only an all-powerful Chancellor but also his anointed successor, he was an extraordinarily soft touch.