Magazine article The Spectator

How New Labour Met Its Nemesis

Magazine article The Spectator

How New Labour Met Its Nemesis

Article excerpt

Last summer, Charlie Whelan's lawyers threatened to sue The Spectator for an article describing him as a bully. The article was entirely correct. So what was he so keen to cover up? Fraser Nelson and Ed Howker investigate

The Labour rebellettes fear the creeping takeover of the party by the Unite trade union via Charlie Whelan. He has been taken on by female officers in the union and formally charged with bullying.

Certain Labour women see the Brown-Simpson Whelan alliance as part of a menacing testosterone-sodden axis. And one that needs to be challenged.

Spectator Coffee House blog, 24 May 2009 Two months later, a letter arrived from Mr Whelan's lawyers.

Carter-Ruck, the Brownites' law firm of choice, insisted that their client had not 'engaged in any sexist or bullying behaviour' and that our post had caused him 'considerable distress and embarrassment' for which he sought damages and an apology. It was, at first, baffling: Mr Whelan is perhaps the most notorious bully in Westminster. No court would convict. But due to the generous nature of England's notorious libel system, it would cost him not a penny to sue. And, while it would cost us thousands to launch a defence, it would cost far less to meet his demands:

apologise, and run no such articles again.

There is much that Mr Whelan does not want to be investigated. Who he is, and what he does, are questions he would prefer to remain unaddressed. As political officer at the Unite union, his position seems irrelevant - yet he has become, as one Labour peer puts it, one of 'the most powerful people in the party'. Just how he has acquired such power, how he uses it and to what ends, is a story that The Spectator had been looking into at the time of his lawyer's letter. A no-win-no-fee legal action - served to a magazine with a small budget - is normally an effective way of putting pesky journalists off the scent.

As we built our defence, extraordinary details began to emerge. The story goes way beyond his 'inappropriate' behaviour in the Gay Hussar restaurant, which featured in the complaints against him at Unite. It is about how Gordon Brown and his allies operate: about the brutality meted out to their opponents and how they managed, in effect, to capture the Labour party. And it is about how, in this campaign, they are fighting to keep the power structure intact, either by winning the election or by installing Ed Balls as party leader.

Mr Whelan had been almost forgotten about when he was brought back, Smileylike, three years ago. He was Mr Brown's first-ever spin doctor: hard-working, harddrinking and specialising in destroying those whom Mr Brown regarded as his internal rivals. One such battle, with Lord Mandelson, ultimately led to his resignation in 1999. Almost ten years later, before Mr Brown's first Labour conference as party leader, he was brought back as political officer at Unite union. His appointment immediately rang alarm bells among the Labour MPs who feared it signalled a return to the sectarian warfare of old.

'It's genius, ' remarked a Cabinet member shortly after Mr Whelan was first appointed to Unite. 'Anyone challenging Gordon for the leadership would need the backing of the biggest donating union. If they came to Unite, they'd find Charlie waiting for them.'

Unite, meanwhile, gets special 'hotline' access to No. 10. The links between Unite and No. 10 have become so close that most Labour observers now assume that Derek Simpson, the secretary-general of Unite, will be nominated for a Labour peerage at the next available opportunity.

But the rest of Unite's staff was stunned by Mr Whelan's arrival, and those who regarded it as a Brownite coup d'etat had their fears confirmed when the union sent £5,000 to Ed Balls's re-election campaign.

'It was one of his earliest acts of patronage, ' explains one Unite member - and a clear sign of what he was there to do. 'He delivers very little for Unite or its members, ' says another senior former official. …

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