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He said, she said

Political journalism is starting to read like a modern version of court gossip.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Political journalism is starting to read like a modern version of court gossip.

The rivalry between prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown is told as a story of pacts, betrayal and thwarted ambition. The affair has become the centre of a vast circle of intrigue, with rumours constantly circulating about the machinations behind the doors of Number 10 and 11 Downing Street. Who has the knives out for whom; who snubbed whom; who is aligning with whom.

A tiny comment or aside can become the subject of febrile speculation. In an interview in the New Statesman, home secretary David Blunkett was quoted as saying that ‘those of us who are privileged…to be at the very cutting edge of government…don’t presume that we should be immediately taking somebody else’s job’. This was eagerly reported as a swipe at Brown. Cue furious denials from Blunkett’s team, saying that the interpretation was ‘mischievous and ridiculous’ and that Blunkett had actually been referring to himself (1).

This story has already run for days, with the magazine’s political editor called up on Radio Four’s Today programme to explain why he thought that Blunkett had been referring to Brown, and Blunkett and Brown’s press teams engineering public shows of unity (2).

Similar discussions occurred around the meeting between Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell and the Spectator editor and frontbench Tory MP Boris Johnson on their bikes at the traffic lights in Westminster. Johnson reported Powell as making an aside about the chancellor: ‘It’s a Shakespearean tragedy. Gordon Brown is like the guy who thinks he’s going to be king but never gets it.’ (3) Powell denies saying any such thing, and Johnson later admitted that his report may not have been entirely accurate – but nonetheless the matter dominated the front pages for a day or two.

And back in May 2004 there was the interview of deputy prime minister John Prescott in The Times, when he talked about the tectonic ‘plates’ shifting and ministers repositioning themselves – which was interpreted as preparation for a post-Blair era. Prescott then fed fuel to the flames by suggesting that ‘events’ might cause Blair to step down before the next general election. All this came after Prescott and Brown had shared a ministerial Jaguar back from a memorial service to former Labour leader John Smith in Scotland (4).

Was Blunkett’s comment meant as a slight? What did Powell say about Brown? What was discussed in the Jag? There is nothing of political substance behind these debates – no consideration of principles or policies. Instead, it’s all about trying to read individuals’ motivations in the game of jostling for position in government.

This might be a suitable subject for a gossip column, but today such stuff has become the staple diet of political editors. Politics is no longer about a battle of ideas, and has instead become a matter of individual character and personality – with Blair and former US president Bill Clinton pioneering the art of presenting themselves as ‘pretty straight guys’. Political conflicts have become personal, less about issues or policies and more about individual motivation.

Whether you’re a ‘Blairite’ or ‘Brownite’ doesn’t depends on your beliefs, but merely on the alliances that you have built in the political jousting match. So cabinet ministers could veer towards Brown at one time and Blair at another, depending on the direction of the political wind. It is this that explains the intrigue that now dominates political journalism. While a conflict of ideas is an upfront matter and can be reported straight – X and Z support such a policy, Y opposes it – today’s personal maneuvering is always shrouded in speculation. Journalists are reduced to trying to read politicians’ intentions from their asides or gestures.

If this is our version of court life, we’re landed with a pretty paltry cast of characters. Never have the utterances of such dull men and women been invested with so much hidden meaning and significance. Nor do we even have the more colourful aspects of traditional courtly politics. There’s no chance of a duel between Blair and Brown, nor of any poisonings – which at least would provide a bit of real drama, as well as resolving the matter once and for all. And there are certainly none of the displays of wittiness or debauchery that used to go on in the court life of the past. Brown is more sulky than vengeful, a dour figure squatting in number 11 rather than going out and getting his own back.

Perhaps worse, are those who report today’s personal spats as battles of real substance. Some commentators and columnists claim that the chancellor represents the soul of Labour, and argue that a Brown succession would put the party back on the left track and herald a return to ‘real’ politics. While Blair and Brown bicker and backstab, these observers imagine that they are witnessing an argument about big political issues – convincing themselves that Brown really is the socialism to Blair’s Thatcherism.

But as King Lear might have said, gossip comes of gossip. Political life is never going to get any better unless we stop paying so much attention to the machinations of Blair, Brown and their courtiers. We should judge them by what they stand for and do, not what they are alleged to have said at the traffic lights, or in the back of a ministerial car.

(1) Blunkett denies Brown sideswipe during interview, Guardian, 1 July 2004

(2) Big beasts put on a show of unity, Guardian, 2 July 2004

(3) Powell ‘did not damn Brown hopes’, BBC News, 3 June 2004

(4) Prescott fuels Blair speculation, BBC News, 26 May 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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