This article is from the December 2012 issue of Total Politics
There is rebellion in the air. Treachery and skullduggery are afoot. We have had the revolt over Europe, the defenestration of chief whip Andrew Mitchell, and rumours of a stalking-horse plot against the prime minister.
Should David Cameron be worried? Possibly. “We know we can’t move on him yet,” one malcontent told me shortly after the PM’s triumphant return from his Brussels Euro veto. “Yet”, being the darkly operative word.
And there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then – most of it sweeping over the coalition and its bedraggled ministers, and dumping them unceremoniously in the mud by Westminster pier.
But how serious are the plotters? In intent, deadly so. There are 30 or 40 members of Cameron’s parliamentary party who loathe him with a passion; they think he’s too aloof, too liberal and too, well, crap. It’s a feeling that’s reciprocated. But if this band of ne’er-do-wells is firm of purpose, maybe it’s a little less so when it comes to execution. From what I’ve seen – and admittedly it’s been from a safe distance – the Tory plotters are something of a disordered bunch.
If you want to move successfully against a prime minister, you need several things. Courage. Organisation. Singularity of objective. I personally possess none of those qualities, which may be why I was kept at relative arm’s length from the various assassination attempts that were launched against Tony Blair in the dying days of his administration. But nonetheless, I still did my bit. I flirted on the outskirts of a shadowy band that dared raise a hand against their king.
The first thing any plot needs is a good front organisation. You can spot such an outfit a mile off. They always hold lots of seminars, write lots of pamphlets and wander about describing themselves as “candid friends” – but they’re not. Behind the intellectual facade beat traitorous hearts. And in my case, the front organisation was the left-wing think-tank Compass.
I was approached to join this anti-Blairite coven by Neal Lawson, who sidled up to me after a Charlton game and uttered what proved to be the organisation’s codeword: “Chris Powell looks short of a yard of pace now.” Actually, that wasn’t a codeword at all, but in the absence of something more dramatic, I’ll stick with it. After discussing the game, he bemoaned the state of Labour, and said words to the effect, “Some of us are organising. You should join us. You know what we’re up against. We could use a great spin doctor like you.”
Again, I may be gifting the story a little artistic licence, but at any rate I was in. We used to meet at Compass’ office just off London Bridge to plot. There was a group of people who still work in sensitive positions in the Labour movement there, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to name them... though one of them was Chuka Umunna.
Actually, to be fair to Chuka, he wasn’t a plotter. He preferred the ‘friendly’ part of ‘candid friendship’. Whenever Neal or I would dream up some dastardly ruse to really stick the knife into Blair, he’d veto it. Or he thought he’d vetoed it, but then Neal and I would go ahead and do it anyway. That’s the thing about these front organisations; they contain wheels within wheels, fronts for fronts.
The Tory plotters don’t appear to have one of those at the moment. Tim Montgomerie and Con Home are often the subjects of bitter muttering from Cameroon loyalists. Montgomerie, however, is a critic, not an assassin.
Once you’ve established your front, you then need to build links with people on the inside at Westminster. We had the ideal inside man; Jon Trickett. Trickett was a perfect sleeper; he’d been around the Commons for years, knew everyone, but had managed to keep a low profile. And he became the plotters’ unofficial chief whip.
As Blair’s premiership ground on, his parliamentary insurgents decided to mount a series of ambushes to encourage him towards an early retirement. Trickett was the guy who slipped out in the dead of night to cut the phone lines and stretch the cheese-wire across the road.
Most previous rebellions had failed because there was no one seriously co-ordinating them or getting their line out to the media. The whips would say, “The rebellion’s crumbling”, and people would duly write it up. Now, Trickett would ring me with daily numbers, and I’d feed them in to the press. “We’ve got 40.” “Are you sure?”. “Absolutely. Locked.” I’d feed it in. The papers would print it. Then there’d be a vote, and 55 rebels would turn up. “You told me there were only 40.” “Yeah, I kept a few back,” Trickett would chuckle, “just so the whips couldn’t get at them.”
The Tory plotters seem a little less organised. Yes, they did the business on the Euro funding, but, to be fair, they were going up against dear old George Young, only two weeks into the job.
One Tory MP I spoke to was less than flattering about the operation they’d mounted when trying to drum up signatures for a stalking-horse challenge. “They were wandering into the Red Lion, going up to people and saying, ‘Here, sign this. We need Cameron out’. It’s not how you do these things.”
It certainly wasn’t in my day. First you built your front organisation, then you made contact with your insiders, and then finally you lined up your challenger.
Ditching a sitting PM is all well and good, but you need to know who you’re going to replace him with. In our case, that was pretty obvious. Gordon Brown, however, could never make his mind up whether to wait or to strike, which made him nervous about making common cause with plotters like ourselves. And that, in turn, meant all sorts of different intermediaries and freelancers were brought – or muscled their way – into the conspiracy.
To be honest, it was sometimes difficult to know who was doing what, and on behalf of whom. I used to get these mysterious phone calls late at night, asking me to drop this bit of gossip, or do that bit of briefing. The problem was the journalists I was talking to never really knew who they should attribute the briefing to. That was in part because I didn’t really know myself. Conversations would go something like this: “Why don’t you just say, ‘insiders’?” “Well, I can’t. You’re not really inside anything, are you?” “OK, what about, ‘rebel MPs’?” “But you’re not a rebel MP.” “No, but I’m speaking on behalf of them.” “OK, who?” “Don’t be daft.” “Is it Brown? It’s Brown, isn’t it?” “Brown!! Jesus!!! Are you trying to get us killed?!”
Obviously Gordon was behind a lot of it. He had an entire war machine, with spread sheets of potential supporters, polling data, surrogates, sleepers, a proper timetable – I do this, he resigns there, I take over there, we have the election there – etc.
Again, I’m not sure the Tory plotters have any of that stuff. They don’t appear to have a timetable. There doesn’t seem to be much of a co-ordinated battleplan. And they certainly don’t appear to have agreed on the challenger – which isn’t to say the plans to get rid of Blair ran with seamless efficiency. Again, part of the problem was Gordon. One second he’d be up for moving, the next he was for holding back. I wouldn’t be surprised if, on several occasions, he had told some of his lieutenants to move and others to hold back at precisely the same time.
There was one occasion, after a particularly disastrous set of election results, when we decided we would circulate to the press the text of a letter MPs would sign calling for Blair to stand down. I was tasked to write it, and sat there tapping away. The next second my phone rang. It was the Daily Mirror: “I understand there’s a letter floating around.” “Er, maybe... ” At that precise moment I was staring at the text of it on my screen. “Well, just to let you know, if we could get it we’d put it on the front.” “OK, I’ll see what I can find out.”
An hour later, I got a call: “Martha Kearney’s just been on the radio. Someone’s told her about the letter. For God’s sake, I haven’t even finished it yet!” In the end, there were about three different letters doing the rounds.
Then there was the time when I’d briefed all the Sundays that the rebels were finally moving against Blair. I was just setting off for the pub when I saw I had about seven missed calls from Neal: “I’ve just had Ed Balls on the phone. He’s heard about the briefing. He doesn’t want us saying anything to anyone.” That was a bit hard, given I’d just said everything to everyone. So I phoned someone else who I knew was close to Gordon. “Oh, we’re relaxed,” he said, “you carry on.” The next morning, Gordon popped up on TV, and rubbished all talk of a plot. “We don’t need outriders”, he said. It would have been nice if he could have let me know the night before.
I think I can detect a similar amount of confusion amongst today’s plotters. It seems to me that there are various different groups operating. The eurosceptics. The Cameron-sceptics. The Lib-Dem-minister-has-my-job-sceptics. I’m not sure they’re necessarily on the same wavelength. Or whether all of them actually own a radio.
Finally, you need to have an eye on the endgame. The problem with the plots against Blair was that they kept dragging on, with lots of plotting and ambushing but no real final move against him. Then eventually the endgame dropped into our laps.
Ironically, the person who finally brought down Blair was Dave Hill, one of the most loyal, skilful and well respected spinners to work in Downing Street. He’d done a briefing for The Times in which he’d tried to shore up Blair’s position after a new bout of – manufactured – leadership speculation. But somehow it came out as one of those “I intend to go on and on” pieces.
I was having dinner in Greenwich when my phone started going nuts. “This is it,” I was told, “he’s done it now. We’re going for him.” So I shut myself in the toilet of the Rivington Grill restaurant and started ringing round: “This is it… Blair’s done it now… PLP in meltdown… It’s over.”
I made my last call and stepped out of the cubicle. A complete stranger was standing there, washing his hands. “Good. I hate that bastard Blair,” he said, and walked out.
After that we had the PPS resignations and a few more letters. And Blair finally announced he was stepping down.
That’s another reason why, if I were Cameron, I wouldn’t be unduly worried. I don’t see any sign of an endgame. Or a middle game, to be honest. In fact, I’m not sure the game’s really got beyond the first five minutes. The pieces needed for a good old-fashioned leadership coup just aren’t in place: no front organisation, not enough good insiders. And no challenger.
Some people are clearly having a bit of a cheeky dabble, but their hearts don’t really seem in it at the moment. It’s all a bit random. If you really want to bring down a sitting PM, then you have to set your mind to it. You need an outfit, you need a plan, and above all you need a mobile phone, a good restaurant reservation and an empty toilet cubicle.
Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I’ve tried my hand at some honest-to-goodness plotting. I quite miss it. Mr Carswell, Mr Jenkin; if you’re reading this, give me a call.