Will Brown Dump Charlie Whelan?

The personal relates to the political very closely in Gordon Brown’s case because his bullying is not a manifestation of his dynamism and determination but of his childish inability to admit error and acknowledge the need for change. Nowhere are the weaknesses of his character more obvious than in his aides’ treatment of Alistair Darling at the start of the economic crisis. Darling had told my Guardian colleague Decca Aitkenhead that we were facing the worst recession in 60 years. If Darling was guilty of anything, it was understatement. But Brown could not tolerate his clear-headed assessment, because it revealed that his supposed economic miracle was an illusion and implied that his failures to regulate the banks and balance the budget would have catastrophic consequences. So out went his attack dogs to undermine the chancellor at the very moment when he needed the Prime Minister’s support.

   I heard Charlie Whelan, Brown’s prolier-than-thou public school boy, denounce the Chancellor outside a Soho pub. It says much for Whelan’s certainty that the political press would obey orders that he did not go off the record but conducted his black propaganda operation in a public place where anyone might have overheard him.

  I was therefore  free to report what happened and here’s what I wrote at the time

I was waiting with a crowd of guests at the Pillars of Hercules pub in Soho for the start of a party being thrown by Kevin Maguire, the Mirror‘s amiable political editor, to celebrate his wife’s launch of a chick-lit novel. Political journalists and rom-com novelists are not the most promising mixture for a convivial evening, but we were all rubbing along until for no reason Charlie Whelan, Brown’s point man in the unions, turned to the journalists and started laying into the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As he was speaking in a public place and did not ask to go off the record, the etiquette of journalism allows me to say that I was astonished. Darling had been a loyal friend of Brown’s, but that did not stop Whelan from denigrating him. More pertinently, it was obvious even then that we were indeed facing the gravest economic crisis of our lifetimes; obvious to everyone, that is, except the Brownites. Because Darling had implied, however obliquely, that Brown’s stewardship of the economy had been less than magnificent, Whelan and his friends were willing to betray an ally, make an unnecessary enemy and undermine the Chancellor at a moment of national danger. The result was predictable. Darling could barely contain his contempt for the deviousness of a man he once considered his friend. (I imagine having to go to work every morning and contemplate the mess Brown left at the Treasury did not help cool his temper either.) Meanwhile, Balls rode on the back of the destabilisation campaign and implied that if Brown wanted rid of the Chancellor he would blushingly step forward to offer his own modest self as a replacement. Yet Darling survived the attacks and gained in stature.

On Sky this morning Darling recalled that briefings like Whelan’s were going on across Westminster and that he felt as if the forces of hell” had been unleashed against him.  Brown replies that  “I was never part of anything to do with this. Look, this was the most amazing time… and lots of things were happening in this time. But I would never instruct anybody to do anything other than support my chancellor, and I think Alistair will confirm that.”

In which case will he sever all his links with Whelan? Will he upbraid him for trying to undermine the Treasury during a national crisis?You only need to ask the questions to know the answer.

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