Cherie's revenge: Explosive revelations pile woe on beleaguered Brown
Interviews to promote £1m publication of memoirs damage PM while he is at his most vulnerable by throwing light on the troubled relationship between Tony Blair and his successor.
By Jane Merrick and Brian Brady
Sunday, 11 May 2008
If revenge is a dish best served cold, it may taste even better garnished with an added element of surprise. So Cherie Blair's decision to catch Gordon Brown unawares and publish her memoirs several months early will be savoured by the Prime Minister's enemies at a moment when he is considered to be at his most vulnerable.
The first extracts of the autobiography, published yesterday, did not unleash a "killer line" that could bring down the premier. But they contained a series of carefully worded, potentially destabilising comments putting on the record for the first time Mrs Blair's view – and her husband's – of Mr Brown.
"The problem with me and Gordon is nothing personal," she insisted in an interview to accompany serialisation, before reeling off examples of the difficult relationship that has dominated New Labour. "It is because I thought my husband was the best person for the job and it is a damn difficult job."
And Mr Brown's "impatience" about Mr Blair moving on "was a difficulty Tony could do without".
Even a supposedly positive comment from her interviews yesterday – that Mr Blair is advising Mr Brown on how to win the next election – left the impression of an embattled Prime Minister who is unelectable without the help of his old rival.
The shock serialisation came at the end of a week in which Mr Brown was beginning to show signs of a fightback after the disastrous May Day elections.
In her book, Mrs Blair claimed that in April 2004 the then Chancellor was "rattling the keys" above her husband's head to try to hound him out of office.
In fact, sources said last night, Mr Brown began demanding to know when Mr Blair would step down as early as 2003 – because that was part of the deal understood by the Brown camp. At one point during this period, Mr Brown was asking the Prime Minister "several times a week" when he was leaving.
Mr Blair would have handed over power much earlier than last July but feared his programme of reform for the public services was in jeopardy under Mr Brown's premiership, Mrs Blair wrote.
Downing Street was not told in advance the book was being serialised, accompanied by interviews in The Times and The Sun newspapers – meaning the first Mr Brown knew was when rumours began swirling around Westminster late on Friday. The failure to alert him was seen as an extraordinary break with traditional courtesy.
But a Blairite source said: "Gordon never told Tony what was in the Budget. Why should Cherie give him a heads-up about this?"
Sources close to Mrs Blair insisted publication was brought forward because she feared being accused by Brown supporters of overshadowing Labour's conference in September, the original date for publication.
Yet the timing coincides with Labour being 26 points adrift in the polls after the local elections and fresh speculation about a challenge to Mr Brown's vulnerable leadership.
There was a sense that the publication, together with a highly critical piece by Blairite former minister Stephen Byers in a newspaper today, was an attempt to "kill off" Mr Brown.
Mrs Blair infamously branded Mr Brown a "liar" at the Labour Party conference two years ago when he pledged loyalty to the then premier after the failed coup by Brownites. It prompted Mr Blair to joke that he did not have to worry about his wife "running off with the bloke next door".
She has said little else in public until now.
Insiders said she wanted to go much further in her memoirs, Speaking for Myself, but after discussions with her husband she was persuaded to tone down the content of the rows between the two men. In fact, many of the passages published yesterday appeared to have come from the ex-premier himself.
She writes: "Gordon wanted to become Prime Minister so much, he failed to understand that, had he been prepared to implement Tony's programmes on internal reform – academy schools, foundation hospitals and pensions – Tony would have stood down, there is no question. Instead of which Tony felt he had no option but to stay on and fight for the things he believed in."
In her Sun interview, asked whether she agreed with comments by the Labour peer Lord Desai that "Gordon Brown was put on this planet to show how brilliant Tony Blair was", Mrs Blair "threw her head back and roared with laughter". She said: "As his wife, I would say Tony is brilliant."
And appearing almost indifferent about the Prime Minister's current difficulties, she told The Times: "The good thing is Gordon is not alone in No 10. He has Sarah and has the children, so even in these darkest moments he knows there is something important outside politics for him."
Mrs Blair's preoccupation with money is a constant theme in the book. She describes the mortgage on their £3.6m Connaught Square house, bought in 2004, as "the size of Mount Snowdon": "Whatever happened, we had to meet the monthly payment and it was down to me. Because no one else was going to meet it, were they?"
Charting her working-class childhood in north Liverpool, Mrs Blair writes about how she barely saw her parents, the actors Tony and Gale Booth, until she was two. She was raised by her paternal grandmother, whose bed she shared in their terrace home in Ferndale Road on the rough side of Crosby. Her mother worked in a local chip shop.
Even though her husband now earns an estimated £2.5m from the Wall Street bankers JPMorgan and the Blairs have just bought the grand country home of the late actor Sir John Gielgud, 20 miles from Chequers, she says her upbringing close to the poverty line has never left her.
"Coming from my background, I don't think I will ever feel secure about money, because I lived in a household which never fell into abject poverty, but we were always on the line. I think one has to remember that I know what it is like to get to the end of the week and have no money left," she told The Times.
Mrs Blair, 53, appeared to regret how much time her husband is now spending as Middle East envoy, revealing that they celebrated his 55th birthday two days early because he had to fly abroad for at least 10 days. "I hope all this travelling is not for ever, just while he's getting settled into his new job. I know Leo misses him. Tony has always been such a hands-on father."
Asked by The Sun whether she has ever worried about the former PM being unfaithful, Mrs Blair said: "Never. Tony is a deeply religious person and takes his wedding vows very seriously."
She rejected claims by Lord Levy – backed by insiders – that Mr Blair was warned by Downing Street officials about "long massages" with her "lifestyle guru" Carole Caplin, insisting it was her idea for Ms Caplin to give her husband massages. Mrs Blair dismissed suggestions that they were engaged in an affair. "I thought it was good for him to be completely relaxed. I trusted her and I certainly completely trusted him."
She confirmed details of the legendary battle Mr Blair and Mr Brown had over the Labour succession following John Smith's death in 1994. The exchanges were so "stormy" as Mr Blair persuaded his rival to give him a clear run for the Labour leadership that they did not happen in public, at the Granita restaurant, as the myth goes, but at her sister Lyndsey's home nearby.
"The Granita meeting was basically for them to talk about the announcement. It wasn't the forum for the kind of stormy discussions that had preceded it. No way would that have happened in public, in a restaurant."
Mrs Blair appeared to confirm that she has a frosty relationship with Mr Brown's wife, Sarah. She said the pair "didn't really socialise" and complained about the level of support her successor receives at No 10. "Sarah – I'm so pleased, because that is one of the things I wanted – has more support. She has four people working for her, while I had two."
Mrs Blair is expected to earn around £1m for the memoirs from publisher Little, Brown. She will receive tens of thousands of pounds more in serialisation rights from the two Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers.
Unlike books by former ministers and civil servants, the manuscript was not subject to scrutiny by the Cabinet Office because Mrs Blair was never paid by the state, and a hard copy did not exist until this weekend, when printing presses began to roll.
Mrs Blair's publicity team denied allegations that extracts had been released this weekend to cause a stuttering Prime Minister maximum damage. Instead, it seemed, she wanted to put an end to continuing speculation about its contents. "There's been a huge amount of inaccurate press speculation about what was in it and the publishers wanted to put an end to that," explained Liz Sich of the Colman Getty Consultancy, which is handling the book's publicity.
Amid the furore over the surprise publication, Mr Blair's former colleagues mounted a rather limp campaign to dampen down the impact of the thoughts of "Lady MacBooth".
"Cherie is Cherie and everyone knows that," a former occupant of Mr Blair's back-room team said. "That is one of the things that makes her so attractive. She is certainly her own woman, but she hasn't written a book that is going to damage the Labour Party."
What she said, what she meant
Cherie Blair's memoirs, and her comments in interviews to publicise the book yesterday, appear to be an exercise in extraordinary self-restraint. Here we unpick her quotes and suggest what she really meant by them.
'Sarah [Brown] – I'm so pleased, because that is one of the things I wanted – has more support. She has four people working for her, whilst I had two.'
Why didn't I have four members of staff? It's not fair.
'I have been a Labour Party person since I was 16, and even before that, and I know they are the best party for the country and I want to see them win again. I would be delighted to campaign for them.'
I want to see Labour win again under David Miliband, and would only campaign for the party if he was in charge.
'The problem between Gordon and me is not anything personal.'
The problem between Gordon and me is we hate each other's guts.
'The good thing is that Gordon is not alone in No 10. He has Sarah and has the children, so even in these darkest moments he knows there is something important outside politics for him.'
We all know he's a bit strange, and without Sarah and the children he would completely lose it.
'Tony has been lucky enough to get a job which means we can afford a country house.'
At last! After all this time of me juggling balls to prop up the family finances, he's finally earning some serious money.
'Carole [Caplin] isn't dodgy at all...It was my idea for him to have massages because I thought it was good for him to be relaxed.'
Well, her former boyfriend, Peter Foster, was a bit dodgy and I wasn't sure about the massages, but she was the closest thing I had to a best friend.
'The new leader [in 1994] had to be someone they could relate to. Tony had always been more appealing to the general public than Gordon, and more grounded in the realities of everyday life.'
Let's face it, I always said Gordon was a bit of a highly strung weirdo and the chickens are coming home to roost now, aren't they?
'Tony was always very supportive of Gordon having his chance.'
Tony was always very supportive of Gordon having his chance to make a mess of things and prove that he was the better leader.
'The Granita meeting was basically for them to talk about the announcement. It wasn't the forum for the kind of stormy discussions that had preceded it. No way would that have happened in public, in a restaurant.'
Gordon hit the roof when Tony suggested the deal. There would have been guacamole all over the walls if it had happened at Granita.
'I wanted him to go on his own terms. I accept that I am not objective on this and, frankly, it would be odd if I were.'
How dare Gordon allow his cronies to try to force Tony out in a coup [in September 2006]? And then to stand up at party conference and claim he was loyal? Liar!