Magazine article The Spectator

Did a Conman Help the Blairs Buy Two Flats in Bristol? Yes or No?

Magazine article The Spectator

Did a Conman Help the Blairs Buy Two Flats in Bristol? Yes or No?

Article excerpt

Anyone who has ever had breakfast, lunch, dinner or any other meeting with Gordon Brown will know that he gives very little away. Some ministers are known for their bluntness and occasional indiscretions; others may sometimes drink a glass or two more wine than they should, and say things they should perhaps not have. The Iron Chancellor falls into neither category. His complete self-control makes him both formidable and rather unlovable.

As has already been reported in the press, on Monday 18 November Mr Brown had breakfast at the Guardian's offices in Farringdon Road. It is not uncommon for the paper to host such get-togethers with ministers. By the standards of some of his colleagues, the Chancellor was not on this occasion particularly indiscreet. By his own lights, he was wildly frank. In criticising the idea of top-up fees for universities as 'ridiculous and elitist', he openly put himself at odds with their champion, Tony Blair, though he did not name the Prime Minister. The mask dropped only fractionally and momentarily, but Mr Brown had offered a glimpse of his differences with his rival, which are normally only alluded to by his lieutenants.

Most of those present must have realised that they had a story on their hands. According to one report, Ed Balls, the Chancellor's chief adviser, and incidentally the one with the greater grasp of economic detail, prevailed on the paper to keep it off the front page. He certainly asked that it should be kept over until Wednesday 20 November because Mr Brown was doing his stuff on the Queen's speech on the afternoon of the 19th. (Although the breakfast was off the record, it is accepted that such meetings can produce stories, so long as names, dates and direct quotes are not used.) On the Wednesday the Guardian ran a piece by Patrick Wintour, its chief political correspondent, on page two, which declared that Mr Brown was 'voicing strong doubts about top-up fees, the preferred option of Downing Street'. Though the article largely restricted itself to top-up fees, it suggested that Mr Brown was 'at odds with some senior Downing Street advisers' and that there was 'a growing ideological split' in the Cabinet. In the same issue the columnist Jonathan Freedland went considerably further. 'At last it's in the open. After eight years of dark whispers, coded messages and plain guesswork, the legendary Blair-Brown split is finally emerging into the daylight.' Mr Freedland comes rather well out of this tale. The conventions did not permit him to cite chapter and verse, so his revelation of a widening Blair-Brown rift necessarily reads a little strangely. But he had done what good journalists have to do, which is to seize on a small hint and interpret it. Mr Wintour might possibly have made more of the personal differences with Mr Blair. But the really stupid thing was to put his story on page two, which is always something of a graveyard slot. Even as it was written it was an absolute corker. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Guardian executives were trying to protect the Chancellor. The story certainly made many fewer waves tucked away on page two than it would have done had it been the splash.

I have been asking myself whether in the heyday of Thatcherism the Daily Telegraph might have obliged Nigel Lawson or the Lady herself in a similar situation. Of course it might have done. Newspapers always consider their future relations with powerful ministers. The Guardian will reason to itself that it got its story, and ran Mr Freedland's lively column, without irritating the Chancellor or Ed Balls. …

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