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Fire is always best turned on the Tories

Posted on 7 January 2010 | 3:01pm

When the Tories were slowly imploding in the run up to our first landslide victory in 1997, former minister Alan Clark called me to bemoan his party’s fate.

As my diaries show, this fellow diarist phoned me rather a lot, more than his party whips and apparatchiks appreciated. He loved ‘the game,’ as he called it. He loved gossip. And he loved telling me how bad things were and how well we – his enemy – were doing.

On this particular occasion, he said that the problem was that the Tories now hated each other more than they hated Labour. It was an interesting insight, and one which helped us then pile on the agony for the Tories as their divisions, particularly over Europe, deepened.

Last night I was reminded of this by someone who put a message on my Facebook page that Labour was now in the same state, that we hated each other more than we hated the Tories. But whereas Alan Clark was right, my Facebook friend is wrong.

There are always disagreements and personality clashes within any major organisation. Why should a political party be different to a bank, an office, a newsroom, a football team, a charity?

But hatred is a strong word. I think Alan’s definition of the strength of feeling back then did indeed define many of the relationships at all levels of the Tory Party. It defined what mainstream members of the Labour Party felt about the hard left in the days of Militant, and what Militant felt about us in spades. But it does not actually define Labour today.

Now hatred is not a terribly good or edifying thing anyway, but in so far as the vast bulk of Labour activists have it within them, I have no doubt much more of it is felt for the Tories than for anyone in their own ranks. And that feeling was growing, and turning itself into greater support and activism, as the prospect of a Tory government neared, both in terms of polls and, now in the fifth year of the Parliament, in terms of timing.

I don’t hate David Cameron. I just don’t think he would be a very good Prime Minister. I don’t think his party has changed fundamentally from the one rejected by the public. I don’t think he has the strength in depth required for a government. I don’t think he has done the policy and strategic work needed. I think he thinks the Tories are born to rule, it is their turn, his time, and that’s that. And I think his policy agenda, in so far as he has one, is one aimed at helping those at the top, those from his own kind of background and despite all the tieless photocalls and the ‘fings just ain’t right’ elf’n’safety, get down with the peoplespeak, he is a pretty traditional Tory toff.

That sense was gaining wider traction, and was one of the reasons he was not pulling away in the polls, despite all the obvious economic and political advantages the Tories have, and despite all the money being thrown from Belize to help them. It was one of the reasons morale among Labour supporters was beginning to rise, and why there seems to be so much anger, whatever people feel about Gordon Brown, about the move against him yesterday. The timing was spectacularly bad.

No leader ever commands total support. True. Gordon is not the most popular or charismatic leader in the world. True. There are differences of opinion over the PBR, and the strategy Labour should adopt for the election. Clearly. And those who say that Gordon knows all about gunning for the leader, and making life more difficult than it might otherwise have been for those working for the leader, might also have a point.

But none of it should get in the way of united and determined efforts in answering the basic question – would you rather have Brown or Cameron as PM?

If Cabinet ministers want him to go, they should tell him. If he doesn’t think he should, they should then decide whether they want to continue, and he should decide whether he wants to keep them. If an MP thinks he is such a liability they cannot serve under him, they should think about giving up their seat. But above all, if people have nothing useful to say, best to say nothing.

It is a dictum by which, I am glad to say, Alan Clark never lived. He and many other Tories at the time. It is one of the reasons he never quite made it as high as he thought his talents should have taken him. And why the Tories have been out of power for so long.

  • Boudicca

    No leader ever commands total support! He’s been PM for just over 2 years and there have been 3 attempts to get rid of him. He only survived last June because Mandelson was tasked with keeping him in place until the Lisbon Treaty was ratified.

    Oh, and you’re right, hatred is a strong word. I hate Gordon Brown. And I despise Labour for letting him stay in No.10 dragging this country deeper and deeper into debt.

  • Nick


    I heard Geoff Hoon’s constituency chairman on Radio 4 at lunch time. He was not happy with his local MP. He was asked about Gordon Brown’s unpopularity with voters, and his reply really was a stunning example of the type of inward looking ‘Bennery’ that Labour resorted to in the 80s.

    “Yes”, he replied “But Gordon is very popular with party activists”.

    I can only repeat, and one senses it increasingly with Labour members as they return from their constituences after each weekend, that the English people en masse, fairly or unfairly, have decided that they won’t have Brown at any price, and will punish Labour accordingly.

    Don’t say you were not warned !

  • Charlesm186

    The difference between the Tories and Labour which you did not mention is that if a Tory leader was this bad he would have been removed.
    There are obviously significant elements within the Labour MP’s who do not think Gordon is the best leader. This has caused three attempts to unseat him in two years. Yet when it comes to stick your head above the parapet they all disapear into the undergrowth – it is pathetic and the country deserves better. I agree with your sentiment that the dissenters should be honest ( like James Purnell ) and either put up or shut up.
    Cabinet meetings should be very frosty at the moment ( and I do not mean the temperature outside ! )

    PS – David Miliband will be the Michael Portillo of the labour party – the one who wanted the crown so badly but never stepped forward to take it

  • Lewis Sidnick

    “I don’t think he has the strength in depth required for a government. I don’t think he has done the policy and strategic work needed…..And I think his policy agenda, in so far as he has one…..”

    I dont understand why it is not obvious to Labour supporters how these comments above could be applied with credibility to Blair in 1996. Blair has even commented himself about his regrets on policy detail/policy strategy at the start of his premiership.

  • dc

    Great article! labour do really need to unite againstthe tories now more so than ever since they do pose a greater threat in the election when compared with previous ones…but cameron has no firm basis and any slight investigation into policy highlights this!

    you need to have more that just ‘its time for a change’. Edward Heath spoke of ‘tomorrow being better than today’…but with all the power shortages under that tory premiership he couldn’t even keep the lights on! they dont change their slogans and they dont change their main principles!

  • Charlie Reynolds

    Are you kidding? The Brown and Blair camps don’t hate each other? Try to be a little more honest guv. The reality is that the clunking fist bully knows how to…em..bully. He will be telling his colleagues – try taking me down and I will destroy you.

    Anyone but Brown for me and everyone I speak to. I have not met anyone who wants him to stay.

    Do you think there are no Alan Clark’s in Labour at the moment – you’re not that stupid.

    Do you really think Cameron thinks he is born to rule? Sounds more like a nasty caricature you are trying to create. I suspect it’s gonna backfire on you. I don’t think you’ve got him right – just like the Tories never nailed Blair right either.

  • peter robertson

    What a waste of time all that was yesterday, don’t think it’ll do GB any long term damage. Thought he had a good PMQ again yesterday. Can’t understand what Hoon and Hewitt were up to or what they hoped to achieve.I agree with, you when it comes down to it there isn’t a Labour supporter in the coutry who would want that Cameron to be running the country rather than GB.

    Labour has a good record in government under TB and GB, hopefully now this rubbish is out of the way we can get on with the job of highlighting that fact.

  • Chris Bartter

    Three points – one is despite the vacuousness of Cameron, it is still true that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them! The second is that a party that doesn’t get its core vote out will lose. The third is the public does not like a divided party at election times.

    That is why Hoon and Hewitt (as well as the increasingly desperate Charles Clarke) should be dealt with swiftly and decisively. Hingin’s too good for them – it’s a good kick up the erse they need!

  • Olivia

    Brilliantly articulated as usual and absolutely spot on. Your analysis – especially of David Cameron and what a Conservative government would mean in reality – should form the messages that Labour is pushing out as often as possible. And you’re right about the feeling that the Tories weren’t having it all their own way. Fingers crossed that Labour are seeking your advice because crystallising the debate into these terms is what is so badly needed.

  • Jonathan

    I keep on hearing this dog whistling about whether David Cameron would govern for all of Britain, or just for a narrow interest group.

    Gordon Brown has governed for all of Britain in the sense that we are all paying for his economic incompetence. We have all felt the effect of his slipperiness on tax matters and his preference for taxing by stealth. We have all seen the effect of his actions on our pension funds. True to his Labour roots, he paid particular attention to low earners when he abolished the 10p tax band.

    Gordon Brown – incompetence for the many, not the few.

    Give me an airbrushed Cameron any day.

  • Richard

    True but the painful fact is that Brown is so far out of his depth in this role that it is a total embarassment every time he is interviewed or appears on TV. How on earth did Labour get itself into this situation where there are no good options left?

  • olli issakainen

    Dave´s Nose. George´s Eyes. Margaret´s Policies.

  • Patrick James

    I think that the coup would have been legitimate if it had been very quick and successful. Then there would have been a new leader very fast.

    The failed mini-coup was ridiculous. It didn’t achieve any objective and only did damage.

    If, as some say, there are many in the Labour Party that do not want Brown as leader, then why does the coup fail so completely?

  • CB

    Hoon and Hewitt were either a) too stupid to know what they were doing, b) politically naive in thinking that this would all be hunky dory and not descend into farce or c) deliberately malevolent and destructive and acting in bad faith with a hidden agenda, contrary to what they have been saying on the news outlets.

    I find a) and b) unthinkable for such experienced politicians but equally c) is not the tone of the original message nor how they came across on TV.

    I found media coverage hilarious. According to The Times Peter Mandelson would seriously consider bringing down Gordon Brown because he lost out on the High Representative job at the EU.

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    Gordon Brown himself should be making the decision. Phillip Gould’s focus group research would have have told you guys by now if GB’s leadership gives Labour a chance or whether it all but guarantees a wipe out of New Labour?

    If the latter, Gordon should go graciously.

  • Ray Merrall

    In Scotland, whenever someone has the temerity to slightly criticise the Exalted Eck, they are immediately attacked by SNP (minister Mike Russell’s (Ooops! sorry, but he is totally innocent of any such allegation)) CyberNats.
    Funny, but I see the same tactics applied to this blog and that of other Labour blogs.
    Who could be behind such dastardly tactics? Could the Tories be so insecure that they have to rely on such attack numpties?
    Never, and the News of the World never, ever would bug peoples mobiles to try and score a cheap story.

  • s chapman

    GB performance on the Solent phone-in said it all for me…he’s so useless as a communicator…even small talk about the weather was so painful…Hoon and Hewitt right idea wrong execution.
    Poll ratings already moving wider(YouGov 2%) and Alastair as for saying the Tories just want to rule for the elite is almost childlike commentary…grow up your lot are like the last days of the Roman empire so in denial

  • Billy Blofeld

    “Gordon is not the most popular or charismatic leader in the world.”

    Fabulous bit of understatement. Might I also suggest:

    – King Kong is not the lightest on his feet.

    – There was a bit of a glitch on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

    – Fred and Rose West had some anti-social habits.

  • Paul

    Alastair – why do you keep on recyclying tribal insults about Cameron when it is obvious to everyone that he is a bit more than that? I am sure like all politicians he is primarily interested in power but it’s also pretty clear he wants to do some good as well. You might not agree with his agenda but it just makes you look silly and tribal to keep on the “Eton Toff” abuse when a more perceptive fisking would resonate much more readily with the majority of us.

  • Nick

    As ever with A.Campbell, rampant tribalism gets the better of objective analysis. Brown leading Labour into an election campaign, and the 24/7 media scrutiny that goes with it, is like watching a lorry head over a cliff in v-e-r-y s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n.

    And one other thought. After the 4th attempted coup against his leadership in barely 2 years, can’t Brown be given a better soundbite in response than “I am just getting on with the job” ?

    Especially when it is a job that the electorate never asked him to do in the first place.

  • mary


    The newspapers continually refer to Sir Ian Kennedy as your friend. Could you please let us know first whether it is true that you are his friend, and second, whether you agree that he should be reviewing the MP’s expenses review that had already been agreed by Party leaders?

    Thanks in advance

  • AC

    Mary – go into archive, see blog November 7. Enjoy