Books: Will Gordon get his way?

Although showing signs of hasty publication, this riveting book gives an insider's perspective on the architect of Britain's economic success, reports Howard Davies.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

One Friday evening in April 1995, my wife and I had retreated to our house in the country. I was director-general of the CBI and weekends away with the family were rare. By 10pm I was in the bath, looking forward to an early night.

The phone rang. My wife answered, suspiciously, since few people had our country number. It was Robert Peston, asking if he could have a word with me. My wife said that would not be possible. 'Not to worry,' said Robert, in his Tigger mode. 'But could you just let him know that I am writing in tomorrow's FT that the Government is about to appoint him deputy governor of the Bank of England.'

This was news to my wife and we had a slightly stiff conversation through the bathroom door. I had had only a speculative 'what if?' conversation with the Treasury, following Rupert Pennant-Rea's untimely departure from Threadneedle Street in the famous 'Bonk of England' episode. But it turned out that Ken Clarke had indeed already made up his mind.

Peston was absolutely right - as he has frequently been over the past 20 years. He has had more scoops than the rest of the FT staff put together, both before and since he left it for the Sunday Telegraph.

That is why the revelations in Brown's Britain have caused such a stir, and why the killer quote from Brown to Blair - 'There is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe' - has been seized on with such glee by the Opposition.

This is, in fact, a book of unusual political significance. It presents, for the first time, a plausible inside view of the evolution of the relationship that has been the axis of British politics for more than a decade. Peston is good on the personalities and he also understands the economics. So this is not just a kiss-and-tell memoir. There are riveting accounts of Whitehall dogfights over the euro, foundation hospitals, the tax and benefit system and university top-up fees.

His treatment of these episodes is individually interesting and collectively generates the best exposition of what Blairism and Brownism might mean.

For those who like a one-sentence summary: 'Brownism is a rejection of Thatcherism, while Blairism is the humanisation of Thatcherism.'

Lest you think, by this point, that I'm in for a cut of the royalties, it should be said that the book displays signs of its hasty publication, apparently some months earlier than the Brown camp expected. The chapters on the different policy debates overlap untidily, with some stories reappearing more than once. There are odd little errors and curious infelicities.

Furthermore, there's rather too much Peston. His own interventions in the story assume a greater significance than others might give them. At times, indeed, there is an 'Adolf Hitler - my part in his downfall' feel about it. The vertical pronoun is ubiquitous. We find 36 'I's' in the short introduction.

Peston leaves us in no doubt as to where his own sympathies lie. He is a Brownite. He thinks that our man has been the best chancellor of modern times, has created the basis for stability and growth, and quietly improved the lot of the poor. The Blair of Brown's Britain, by contrast, is a shadowy figure with little grasp of policy, who tells people what he thinks they want to hear, and otherwise gets on with fighting wars.

Interestingly, there's almost nothing here about Iraq. Didn't anyone tell the Treasury there was a war on? Or is it rather that Peston - a peacenik - can't bring himself to acknowledge Brown's role in writing the cheques?

He is not blind to Brown's personal oddities, but at times he is positively gushing about our hero. So we learn, for example, that 'Brown has always put party before self', and that 'his steadiness in pursuit of his goals has been peerless'. A CBE beckons on Premier Brown's first Honours list.

But will there be such a list? Now that the Granita deal has been wound up, can Brown hope to hang on and succeed Blair in 2009? On this crucial point, Peston hedges his bets. On the one hand, he says he has always 'felt that there was an historical inevitability to Gordon Brown becoming the British prime minister'. On the other hand, 'there will come a moment - and it may not be far off - when voters become sick to death of him'.

And, on the third hand, he tells us that Charles Clarke believes the British people will never in future elect a party led by a Scot.

What is clear from Brown's Britain is that if there is a Prime Minister Brown, he will not be a Blair mark II. Nor will he be supported by Blair in the succession battle. So the arguments, and the infighting, will go on, and on, and on - unless one or the other man decides that enough is enough. It's great entertainment, but as a basis for running a government ...?

BROWN'S BRITAIN

Robert Peston

Short books

£14.99

MT price £12.99

To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

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