This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
Like so many other things in life, it all turned out to be Danny Finkelstein’s fault. I was standing on a wind-swept train platform in Birmingham. Danny was buried deep in the bowels of Tory Central Office in Smith Square. It was April 1997. A mobile phone rang: “Hi, it’s Millbank, you still in Birmingham? Anyway, look, this is important. You mustn’t say you won’t privatise the White Cliffs.”
I pause, primarily for dramatic effect. “Sorry? Did you just say we can’t say we won’t privatise the White Cliffs?” Cue strange looks from assorted commuters. “No... I mean, yes. I did say that, but you can’t say it. You mustn’t say you won’t privatise those cliffs.” To the casual observer this conversation would have been reminiscent of the opening of one of those Cold War spy films: “Is the red cow flying west?” “Yes. And I understand the white cliffs look serene in the moonlight.”
Sadly, those of us on Labour’s general election campaign team had not been issued with poison-tipped umbrellas. All we were armed with were umbrellas sporting the slogan ‘Britain Deserves Better’.
And Britain may well have done, but it was Finkelstein’s job to ensure Britain didn’t get it. And the Tories’ director of research had come up with a nefarious but ingenious plan.
The key to the election – or what both sides believed to be the key to the election – was Labour’s credibility on the economy. And Labour’s strategy was simple: no uncosted spending commitments, a pledge to stick to overall Tory spending limits, a review of everything else – as resources allowed.
Time and again the Conservative Party had tried to find a way of penetrating this Brownite body armor. Time and again it failed. Then, as Finkelstein later described to a friend, “A lightbulb went on in my head”. The year before, shadow transport secretary Andrew Smith had given his most famous – in fact, his only famous – speech to Labour Party Conference, in which he announced Labour’s opposition to the sale of Britain’s air traffic control system with the words, “Our air is not for sale”.
It was this neat, if otherwise innocuous, soundbite that gave the Tories their opening. Finkelstein realised that if there was no sale of the air traffic control system, there were going to be no receipts to the Exchequer from the sale of that air traffic control system. And if there were no receipts, then there was a small hole in Labour’s spending plans. And if you totalled up all the things the Tories were planning to privatise – and Labour had pledged not to privatise – then that would add up to quite a large hole. And if Labour could be shown to have a large hole in its spending plans, then where did that leave Labour’s economic credibility? And if Labour’s economic credibility could be successfully undermined... ?
Panic. Finkelstein’s little lightbulb sparked Labour’s great 1997 election panic. After the election – Tony Blair’s record-breaking, precedent-shattering, meteorite-hitting-the-Earth-and-destroying-all-human-life triumph – it was instantly forgotten. Labour’s well-oiled election machine had smashed the Tories aside.
Well, you should have seen what was going on inside that well-oiled machine. It was pandemonium.
The reason I’d got that call was because we’d been running a campaign against Tory plans to sell off the Cinque Ports, including Dover. Although the way we’d spun it, people thought the buyers, a French consortium, were going to get the cliffs thrown in as well. We even had Vera Lynn and the Queen Mum supporting us. And now we were being told we were going to have to turn round and say, “Erm… actually, we might have to sell them after all”.
It didn’t stop there. The Tories were planning to sell off the Tube. This was a massive issue in London, and the following week we’d scheduled a major campaign photo call to demonstrate our opposition. We’d said the Tories were going to go even further with their railway privatisation. Hell, we’d told anyone who would listen how they were going to flog off the entire NHS.
In any Great Political Panic, there are four distinct stages. Denial, Knee-Jerk Reaction, Inaction and Meltdown.
We had already passed Stage One. That was when the Tories had first hit us with air traffic control. We’d said to ourselves, “It’s only air traffic control. Who cares?”, and packed Blair off to have a nice photo taken with some school kids in Basildon.
But now we were at Stage Two; someone had realised the extent of the problem. In fact, I knew as soon as I received the call that somebody, somewhere had recently sat in a meeting and uttered the fateful words, “I’m sorry”– Stage Two is always prefixed with this apology – “but I think we have a bit of a problem”. This precise phrasing, “I think we have a bit of a problem”, is the political equivalent of the US president hitting the red phone hotline, then somberly intoning “Gentleman, take us to DEFCON 2”.
That’s the moment everyone knows The Panic is now official. And it has the following effect. First, everyone in the campaign headquarters has to be demonstrably tense. They are forbidden to crack jokes for at least one hour after the alert is issued. If they walk, it must be at a brisk pace. And they have to catch at least one other colleague’s attention, look at them wordlessly, give a slow shake of the head, and then stare intently at their workstation.
Second, the senior staff must huddle. Or, in the case of 1997 Labour, gaggle. Someone shouts, “We need a room”, then everyone ignores them and goes and stands by a water cooler. For Labour, gaggling would usually involve Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Charlie Whelan, Dave Hill, Philip Gould and maybe Jo Moore and Tim Allan, plus three or four people who no one really knew and who only appeared when The Panic was on.
Then finally the huddle or gaggle breaks, and everyone grabs a phone and starts phoning someone. This is the first attempt to contain The Panic, though in truth it only exacerbates it, because it communicates to everyone outside that this is now an official Stage Two Panic, and it’s therefore much too early for anyone to say or do anything remotely constructive.
So in my case, the conversation went something like this: “So, what do I say if I’m asked if we still oppose port privatisation?” “You can’t say we oppose it.” “I know. You’ve already told me that. What can I say?” “You can’t say we oppose it.” “OK. What about Tube privatisation? Do we still oppose that?” “You can’t say we oppose any privatisation.” “Right. So it’s now Labour Party policy to privatise the National Health Service, is it?” “OK, OK. I’ll get back to you.” But they never do. They can’t. They’re too busy catching someone’s eye, shaking their head and staring intently at their workstation.
At this stage, the impact of The Panic is primarily being felt internally. No one in the real world knows it’s happening, but on the inside it’s already starting to suck life from the campaign. People are trying to find a solution to The Panic, obviously, but they’re also starting to cast around for someone to blame for The Panic, in case it escalates – which, in turn, means they’re desperately trying to get a handle on how bad The Panic, and buck-passing, is going to be. And all this is going on when everyone is really supposed to be doing something productive, like trying to find a way of getting themselves into Alastair Campbell’s diaries.
The next morning I got a call from someone at Millbank: “Don’t you think this is bad? Everyone here thinks it’s bad.” “Yes, I think it’s bad.” “It’s Gordon’s black hole” – [Note: Gordon is being lined up as the fall guy] – “The Tories have found his black hole. That’s very bad, isn’t it?” “Yes, that’s very bad.” “Terrible. If they can get Gordon’s black hole splashed all over the front pages we’re in real trouble, right?” “Right. Gordon’s black hole all over Britain’s breakfast tables will certainly not be a vote winner.”
Actually, at this stage I was relatively relaxed. We were still at Stage Two, and I was still getting reassuring knee-jerk phone calls telling me what not to say.
Then the phone rang again: “Hello, this is Peter Mandelson.” Now, if you’re in the middle of The Panic, this is the man. Think Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction. Peter the Wolf. Dave Hill always used to say that when the pressure was on and people were scrabbling around, Peter would come up with the perfect line to diffuse the situation.
“This Tube privatisation thing tonight, can you just send me over the release? I want to make sure we don’t get our wires crossed over it.” My blood ran cold. Peter the Wolf is supposed to say, “Right, this thing tonight. Your release has to say this, this and this,” then put the phone down and go and drag a headless corpse out of Blair’s garage.
Instead, he’d said nothing. He was going to look at the release, put it in a draw, then go off for a late supper at Quaglino’s. But he couldn’t say anything, because no one, not even Peter the Wolf, had any idea what to say. Inaction: we had officially entered Stage Three.
I was about to be sent naked into the lion’s den. Or even worse, naked into the den of Dick Murray, the Evening Standard’s legendary transport correspondent. And no sooner had I arrived at our ‘Say No To Tory Tube Privatisation – Say Yes To Labour Tube Privatisation’ event, than Dick walked up. “Mate, this is crap. You must know this is crap. You’re going to get slaughtered tomorrow.”
And that’s the point when I threw in my lot with everyone else. I panicked: “OK. From a Labour source: ‘If Labour is elected a week on Thursday, Tube privatisation will be axed a week on Friday’.”
That wasn’t the line. It wasn’t anywhere near the line. In fact, it was so far over the line that when Peter the Wolf read the next day’s first edition of the Standard he’d take the line and personally garrote me with it. Even worse, I’d now ensured we entered Stage Four. The press would pick up what I’d said on the Tube, compare it to what we’d said on everything else and bury us. It wasn’t just a black hole any more, it was a split black hole, the worst kind of black hole there is. Our credibility on the economy would be shot. Our credibility on everything else would be shot. John Major would stage the most staggering election comeback in history. Meltdown. And it would all be my fault. At least I’d get to feature in Alastair’s diary.
And then a very strange thing happened. Nothing happened at all.
The Panic stopped. It just vanished. The Standard ran the story, and it said we’d pledged to stop Tube privatisation. And the party kept saying we wouldn’t oppose any privatisation. And no one cared. The agenda moved on – or rather, it stayed where it always had been.
The election had been settled years before. We could have said we’d privatise the NHS and still have won. We had earned our economic credibility, and by that stage nothing was going to change it.
And Finkelstein knew it. He was just messing with our heads and going through the motions. He knew the game was up.
Because that’s the thing about every Great Political Panic: it is, literally, a panic, an irrational emotional outburst. Around 99 per cent of political panics don’t matter, and the other one per cent you can’t do anything about. In 2015, who will remember the Petrol Panic, the Pasty Panic or the Group 4 Olympic Security Panic? The same number of people who remembered the Ecclestone Affair. Or the Hinduja crisis. Or the Foot and Mouth Panic.
The Watergate burglary and cover-up, the invasion of Iraq, those are the things that stick, that do the real political damage. And once they get running, there’s very little anyone, even Peter the Wolf, can do about them.
Except, you could perhaps ask Danny Finkelstein what his alibi is...