It is July 1994. Gordon Brown has just been elected leader of the Labour party. Tony Blair becomes shadow foreign secretary, with a mission to reform Britain's relationship with Europe. What happens next?by Steve Richards / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
The scene was highly charged and yet somehow without tension. In July 1994, Labour MPs, party workers and journalists crammed into a sweaty hall in Westminster to hear the result of the Labour leadership contest. Although the result was beyond doubt, the excitement was real. At 11am on one of the hottest days of the year, Gordon Brown was declared the new leader of the Labour party. In a soaring victory speech, the youthful leader hailed a new beginning under a new Labour party.
Only Brown’s friend, Tony Blair, had posed a fleeting threat as a possible alternative leader. In those intense summer days of 1994, Blair had contemplated standing but decided against doing so largely on personal grounds. He had a young family, and his wife, Cherie, had just—unexpectedly—become pregnant again. Soon his eldest child would be heading for secondary school, and probably a highly controversial choice of school as far as the Labour party was concerned. For Blair the vacancy had arisen too early. Besides, as he told Roy Hattersley when Labour’s former deputy leader had urged him to stand: “Gordon wants it more than me.” In some ways Brown had been preparing for this moment for most of his life.
In addition, Peter Mandelson had advised Blair to give Brown a clear path for the leadership, but to agree in advance that he would acquire the role of unofficial deputy and foreign secretary in the Labour government that now seemed likely, if not yet certain.
After John Smith’s sudden death, but before any candidate had declared, Blair followed Mandelson’s advice. He phoned Brown to suggest that they meet to discuss the situation. Blair wanted to meet at Granita, a restaurant in Islington safely removed from the prying eyes of Westminster. But Brown was not a fan of the Islington scene. He insisted that Blair meet him at his flat in Westminster, a venue that was even more chaotically untidy than normal. Their meeting was to acquire immense significance in the years to come.
During their exchanges amid piles of newspapers and documents, Blair was more distant and businesslike with his friend than usual. He told Brown that he would not stand for the leadership but wanted to be shadow foreign secretary. He explained that he regarded his main political mission as ending Britain’s ambivalent relationship with Europe. In particular he wanted to be the foreign secretary that took Britain into the euro. Brown was relaxed and relieved. He too wanted Britain to join the single currency. Already he suffered nightmares about being another Labour leader destroyed by a sinking pound.