Magazine article The Spectator

Jowell's Torment Is a Gift from the Gods to Gordon Brown

Magazine article The Spectator

Jowell's Torment Is a Gift from the Gods to Gordon Brown

Article excerpt

There has been an iron rule at Westminster since New Labour won power nine years ago.

When Brown is strong Blair is weak, and vice versa. Imagine a seesaw. This weekend Brown is up, feet dangling in the air, smirking. The Chancellor is the big winner from the Jowell debacle, so much so that it is hard to see how the Prime Minister can ever recover. Blair's premiership - like John Major's only much more so - has ended up mired in sleaze. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, naturally, is taking full advantage.

In marked contrast to Tony Blair and his allies, Gordon Brown is impervious to the trappings of office. This has always been the case. I remember conversations with my friend Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's former spin-doctor, on the eve of the 1997 general election. Charlie would look forward to lavish weekends at Dorneywood, the magnificent country retreat long enjoyed by Chancellors as a perk of office.

'It'll be bloody marvellous, ' mused Charlie. 'Snooker tables an' all. Big-screen TVs. There's tennis courts - what do they want them for? Bound to be one or two decent local pubs. Soon as the election's over, we'll be over there and take a butcher's.'

Sad to say, we never found out if Dorneywood really did possess the facilities that Charlie Whelan fondly envisaged.

Gordon Brown never went there, not even once, and has not done so to this day. At weekends he would travel to Scotland to visit his mother and attend to constituency duties.

This unfeigned austerity has been further in evidence over recent weeks. A quiet announcement went round Whitehall two weeks ago that the government car fleet is to be upgraded. All Cabinet ministers are to be awarded a Jaguar car. Gordon Brown - along with his close ally the Transport Secretary Alistair Darling - will not be taking up this offer. In an unspoken rebuke to colleagues, they will make do with a Toyota Prius. This is no sudden fad.

As matters stand, Gordon Brown already has the right to a Jaguar, but uses a Vauxhall Omega.

Last weekend the Sunday Telegraph had the intelligent idea of ringing Cabinet ministers to ask if any of them had opened an offshore account (the most likely beneficiary has recently been rumoured to be the former communist John Reid, who now lives in grand style in central London). A panicky Downing Street forbade them to answer. Whether by happy accident or design, the Chancellor and his deputy, Des Browne, ignored this interdiction, making it clear that they had not.

This pointed response drew attention to the contrast between Brownite austerity and the financially promiscuous and easygoing Blairites.

The distinction was due to become more marked still on Thursday, in the wake of a testy speech given by Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. For years Sir Alistair and his predecessors have unavailingly urged the Prime Minister to clean up his act.

The committee proposed legislation to curb abuse of the Civil Service in 2001. In 2003 it turned its attention to the ministerial code of conduct, urging an independent system of scrutiny. The Prime Minister snubbed this advice, a decision he must surely regret.

Sir Alistair's intervention is part of a rolling 12-monthly review, has been longplanned and is therefore entirely fortuitous. The timing is none the less lethal. Sir Alistair has been quietly drawing attention to the same failures in the Blair system of government that the Butler report into the background to the Iraq war highlighted two years ago: the sofa culture, the cronyism, the refusal to respect due process, the irregularity of reporting, the systematic transgression of boundaries between party and state. …

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