"I Couldn't Have Pushed Gordon Out": As Harriet Harman Prepares to Stand Aside for a Permanent Leader, She Reflects on the Election Defeat, the Coalition and Purpose in Opposition

By MacIntyre, James | New Statesman (1996), September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

"I Couldn't Have Pushed Gordon Out": As Harriet Harman Prepares to Stand Aside for a Permanent Leader, She Reflects on the Election Defeat, the Coalition and Purpose in Opposition


MacIntyre, James, New Statesman (1996)


Harriet Harman is reflecting on her gravity-defying comeback, from being sacked in a dispute over welfare reform in 1998 to being elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in 2007 and leading Labour through a testing transition period following the election defeat in May. She is able, now, to laugh: asked if she remembers what it was like to have left government so early in New Labour's period in office, she turns her fingers into inverted commas and chuckles. "Yes, I 'left'. Suddenly the door was opened and ..." She trails off and then recalls: "It was awful being sacked--obviously it is, especially if it is high profile. That was hard. But I actually did a lot of things that I felt were really worth doing when I was on the back benches.

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"It was good to be back in government: being solicitor general [2001-2005] was a fantastic opportunity, and then being deputy leader was just amazing. And then acting leader. So it's been quite a roller-coaster ... And I suddenly realised that I'm the only one left; Nick Brown and I are the only two left from that first cabinet. Everyone else is gone: Tony, Gordon, Alistair, Jack."

Even by Westminster standards, hers is an impressive story. From the back of the pack, Harman beat Alan Johnson and four others to the post of Labour deputy leader with little financial backing. And, as acting leader, she has galvanised party morale, overseen a rise for Labour in the polls to the point where it is neck and neck with the Tories, and given David Cameron a run for his money at Prime Minister's Questions. Doesn't she have any regrets about declining to stand for the permanent leadership? Harman is certain: "No, I don't." She adds: "I could either have been a leadership candidate or been acting leader; I don't think I could have done both."

Instead, her role has been to "hand over to the new leader for them to take the situation forward. It was a great thing to get to be deputy leader in the first place." She claims she "never" planned to stand. And Labour MPs are universally grateful to Harman for her decision toserve as caretaker and ensure the party did not implode during its first properly contested leadership contest since Michael Foot became leader in 1980.

Now, not only has Harman survived the two men who brutally forced her out in 1998 -Tony Blair and Gordon Brown--but, as the elected deputy leader, she will remain one of the most powerful people in the party. And she has been joined this year on the Commons benches by her husband, Jack Dromey, the outgoing party treasurer and a controversial figure because of his role in the "cash-for-peerages" affair. Dromey revealed in 2006 that he was unaware of certain loans from those who were made peers by Blair. In a recent interview to publicise his memoirs, Blair was asked if Harman had been "implicated in his destabilisation", to which the reply was: "The answer is that I honestly don't know. I just don't."

Harman is resolute in her denial. "I absolutely did not talk to Gordon about Jack as treasurer and what he was doing on the loans for peerages at all, in any shape or form, and neither did Jack--and the idea that somehow Jack and I were in a plot with Gordon against Tony is completely, completely not true. But I think it's a reflection of quite how bad the relationship had become between the two of them that Tony saw shadows where there weren't [any] and I think that's a real shame, because it's absolutely not true."

On the subject of Brown, some party insiders say that Harman had an opportunity to tell him to leave office in January, during the coup attempt by her former cabinet colleagues Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. Looking back, does she feels should she have done so? Harman says no, and puts the party's difficulties at that time into context to explain her thinking.

"There are three overriding things there. …

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