Outed: Minister who said Brown would be absolute disaster
The former cabinet minister who told me in very strong language that Gordon Brown would be "an absolute disaster" if he became prime minister and pledged, in equally strong terms, to "do anything in my power to stop him" has outed himself tonight with the help of a little gentle prodding by PM's Eddie Mair (you can listen live to the programme here).
On 7 September 2006, I reported on the angry fall-out from the Brownite attempt to force Tony Blair to name the date he would leave office. Peter Mandelson dubbed it Labour's "moment of madness", leading me to report on the Six O'Clock News:
"The madness may not yet be over. My notebook filled today with anger and bitterness from all sides - even after today's statements. One Blairite minister said something extraordinary to me today, so deep was his anger. 'It would be an absolute effing disaster if Gordon Brown was PM, and I'll do anything in my power to effing stop him.' And yes, he did want to be quoted."
I have never commented publicly or privately on who made the memorable phone call that produced that quote, but tonight the former Defence Secretary John Hutton outs himself as the caller. He goes on to say that he changed his mind.
This is more than mere historical trivia. Hutton resigned from Brown's cabinet on the same day as James Purnell walked out calling for a change of leadership. Had Hutton backed Purnell's view - or, indeed, publicly repeated any of his private views - we would now in all probability have a different man leading the country.
Incidentally, it has long been speculated that Hutton was the source of the quote, in large part because he has blushed when asked about it and has refused to lie about it. There is another reason, though.
The man thought most likely to have that view and to express it that way was John Reid. He marched up to me in the bar of the TUC conference that year and declared to all within earshot:
"Its only because I swear too effing much that everyone effing thinks I was the effing source for your effing quote and you know I effing wasn't."
Transcript of Eddie Mair's interview with John Hutton:
Mair: You are credited with saying - perhaps that's not the right word - you are credited with saying previously that Gordon Brown would be "a fucking disaster" in the role of prime minister. Did you say that?
Hutton: That's not my view, of course-
Mair: Did you say it?
Hutton: I am not going to, sort of, go into this... sort of, who said what to whom again here because, you know, I could say yes or no to that question.
Mair: Well, you could just tell me the truth.
Hutton: And it would... it would still continue to be, to be debated...
Mair: You can tell me you thought it once and you don't think it now.
Hutton: Gordon has not been a disaster as prime minister. He has put his heart and soul into the job, and he is doing everything he can for the country at a time of intense difficulty.
Mair: But did you think he would be a disaster, and did you express it in those terms?
Hutton: I wasn't one of the prime minister's cheerleaders, no, in a run-up to... [laughter]
Mair: That's another way of putting it, isn't it?
Hutton: Well, I wasn't - and I am not going to pretend otherwise, because that is, that would be silly. I know perfectly well whatever I say on that score, some people will say, 'Well, yes he said that', 'No, he didn't say that'.
Mair: Well, hang on - but you are in a position to tell us whether you said it, then we can just get on with it.
Hutton: Well, that is certainly true.
Mair: My guess is you said it. You haven't denied saying it, and you... So, come on. Did you say it?
Hutton: Well, there's no point in me denying that I didn't have very serious concerns about, er...
Mair: You said it. Didn't you?
Hutton: ...I did say it. Yes, I did. Yeah. Let's just get that over with.
Mair: And what do you think of him now?
Hutton: My opinion has changed of Gordon. I think he has - and certainly, in all of his dealings with me, showed nothing but, sort of, a great deal of support and help during my time as a minister. So I personally have no criticisms of Gordon's performance as prime minister at all. I think he has been a tremendously hard-working man, who has really put, as I said, his heart and soul into it.
Update 1746: I have only just listened to the whole of John Hutton's gripping interview. He says that those involved in trying to remove Tony Blair in 2006 should hang their heads in shame - and he clearly includes Gordon Brown in that group.
The truth will always out, he says. When, at the time, I reported divisions in the Cabinet, I was accused of speculating or exaggerating - in other words, the usual non-denial denials. Thanks to John Hutton, that truth has now been confirmed.
PS: The blog will return in the new year - Happy Christmas to you all.