Kevin Toolis: Political history sees only leaders

Former PMs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Picture: Getty
Former PMs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Picture: Getty
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It is a truism that all political careers end in failure. The real truth is far worse: the ultimate destiny of all those who take their seats at the Cabinet table, except the leader, is one big absolutely forgettable nothing. They are simply forgotten.

As a tease to the audience in The Confessions of Gordon Brown, Ian Grieve, who plays Brown, asks the audience to name five members of Blair’s first 1997 Cabinet. No-one can.

In particular he asks the name of the key minister in one of the most historic decision points of Blair’s premiership. The answers, if they come at all, are invariably wrong, except for the other day when a vaguely familiar face in the front row shouted out the right answer. It was former chief whip Nick Brown, and a senior member of the Blair government at the time. Our fictive leader duly awarded him a tin badge.

I don’t know precisely what Nick Brown, one of Gordon Brown’s closet allies, thought of our Confessions but judging by his laughter he must have recognised some echo in our depiction of Labour’s fallen leader.

When the mighty fall, they fall hard.

I know from speaking to other Labour MPs and officials who have attended that the play’s portrayal of a beleaguered, raging but exhausted Thrawn King in his final days in power is not far off the mark.

As writer and director, I was often surprised by the candour of Brown’s colleagues in private. Without the aura of power to protect the former PM, they had little hesitation in pointing out the flaws of a man they once pledged endless oaths of loyalty to.

Political parties exist to gain power and many of them are understandably embittered against a fallen idol who led them to ignominious defeat. In the bar after each show there is always much rehashing of the withering “psychological flaws” tag once attributed to Gordon Brown even when he was merely the Chancellor.

Leadership is a complex task, as Ed Miliband, after two lacklustre years, is finding out in what could easily turn out to be Labour’s bloody summer.

Andy Burham has launched the first broadside against the Miliband camp with his call last weekend for Labour to shout more loudly. But hidden within Burham’s protestations of loyalty is the unspoken question that haunted Brown: is the current leader the right man for the job?

Modern party conferences are tame affairs but the seas of Brighton might yet run red with political blood during this year’s September Conference.

We will be there, though the party leadership has already banned The Confessions from the Conference magazine. In an era of airbrushed politics and stage management of the Leader and his dreary photo-calls, I have learned one other thing. There is a huge appetite still for real political drama about the men on the telly who claim the right to rule over the rest of us.

• The Confessions of Gordon Brown, by Kevin Toolis, is on at the Pleasance Courtyard.