Brown and Friends

David Runciman

Gordon Brown, like all prime ministers, like all politicians, like all of us really, is over-reliant on the advice of a small group of people he thinks he can trust. In Brown’s case, these tend to be men who once worked as juniors in his office, having been hand-picked at a very young age. Douglas Alexander became Brown’s researcher and speechwriter when he was in his early twenties. So did Ed Miliband. Ed Balls joined Brown when he was only 27, after a spell at the Financial Times, and they have been joined at the hip ever since. Despite the fact that two of the three (Alexander and Balls) were deeply implicated in the disaster of the election-that-never-was, it is still this group that Brown turns to first (by all accounts, first thing in the morning) for guidance, reassurance and schemes of revenge. It means that Brown has become dependent on the advice of people who were once entirely dependent on him. This cannot be healthy.

Even more striking than Brown’s taste for attaching himself to his former intellectual bag-carriers is the fact that each of his three confidants has a very close relation in the upper reaches of British political life. At the time of writing, Alexander’s sister Wendy was still hanging on as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. Balls’s wife, Yvette Cooper, sits with him in cabinet. Miliband’s brother, David, is foreign secretary. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives: the Brown government is a family affair, and it marks a shift to ever more intimate political relationships at the centre of power, even compared to the days when Tony Blair was ruling the country with the aid of his former pupil master and his former flatmate (and perhaps his wife as well). Of course, politics has always been about personal connections and private vendettas, but the current narrowing of the political class has an almost 18th-century feel to it, as the circle from which the political elite is drawn becomes ever smaller.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to their education – and this cuts across any differences between the main political parties. When Brown shuffles off the stage, British politics (or perhaps one should say English politics, since Scotland may be going its separate, but equally parochial way) will be in the hands of a generation of late thirty and early fortysomethings, almost all of whom went to the same university at roughly the same time and studied the same subject. As well as the two Milibands, Balls and Cooper, Jacqui Smith, Ruth Kelly, James Purnell, David Cameron and William Hague all went to Oxford and read PPE. The exceptions to this rule are George Osborne (Oxford, history), Boris Johnson (Oxford, classics), Michael Gove (Oxford, English) and a few, like Andy Burnham, Chris Grayling, Nick Herbert and Nick Clegg, who went to Cambridge. (Chris Huhne, incidentally, also read PPE at Oxford, but he is now in his fifties and therefore appears to be viewed by some Lib Dem members as already past it.) No doubt they were the leading political talents among their generation of students at their respective universities, but still, this seems like a pretty narrow pool of talent to be drawing from in the first place.

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[*] Allen Lane, 448pp., £20, October 2007, 978 1 84614 042 6.