The Granita Pact was an agreement reached between the British Labour politicians Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the Granita restaurant at Islington in London on the 31st May 1994. For many years it was doubted whether such a pact actually existed, and its contents and very existence became a matter of dispute, but it nevertheless became part of the nation's political folklore, until that is the evidence emerged to confirm that a deal had indeed been done. However in order to understand what the deal meant and why it was struck it is necessary to understand something of the history of the Labour Party during the years of opposition between 1979 and 1997.
The Kinnock Years
During the bleak 1980s when the Labour Party appeared to be entirely incapable of effectively challenging the dominance of the Conservative Party, the three figures of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson emerged at the forefront of the so-called 'modernisers', who believed that the Labour Party needed to jettison much of its old class war baggage in order to make itself electable once more. Of these three, it was Gordon Brown who was seen as the leading figure, and when Neil Kinnock resigned as leader following defeat at the General Election of 1992, it was Gordon Brown who was being spoken of as a potential leader. Brown had after all, topped the shadow cabinet poll for three years in succession, and was therefore seen as the main potential challenger to the Shadow Chancellor John Smith, whilst it was also known that Neil Kinnock favoured Brown rather than Smith, since he viewed the latter as very much 'old Labour', and not quite in step with his own efforts to make the party electable once more.
Indeed during the later years of Kinnock's leadership there was much jockeying for position between the rival supporters of Smith and Brown. So much so in fact that when Brown and Smith met at Edinburgh in August 1991, Smith apparently reproached his former protégé with the words "What the hell are you doing?", and extracted an undertaking from Brown that he would not stand against him in any future leadership contest. Nevertheless when Kinnock subsequently resigned, Blair did his best to persuade Brown to stand for the leadership, but Brown decided against it, partly out of a sense of loyalty to John Smith, and partly out of a belief that his time would later come. At the time Blair considered standing for the leadership himself, but was rapidly persuaded otherwise when he realised that he had almost no support in the Party. Blair then considered standing for the deputy leadership; however Smith didn't want Blair as deputy leader, since they both represented Scottish constituencies, and Brown didn't want Blair to be deputy leader either, since he was worried that Blair might make something of the role and so leapfrog over him in the succession stakes.
In was in order to prevent Blair from establishing any kind of momentum that the Smith camp told the media that Margaret Beckett would be standing as deputy leader. As it happened this was news to Margaret Beckett who was "horrified" at the story and promptly rang both Blair and Brown to tell them that she wasn't standing and that she assumed that they would be putting their own names forward. (Of course she was subsequently persuaded otherwise and indeed became the party's deputy leader.) For his part Brown arranged for Nick Brown and Doug Henderson to conduct an 'analysis' of the likely voting arithmetic, and presented the results to Blair which showed that he had little chance of winning, and so persuaded him not to stand. Blair's wife Cherie, for one, took great offence at Brown's attitude, which was the beginning of her personal animosity towards Brown which persisted thereafter.
The Smith Years
John Smith was of course elected as Leader of the Labour Party with a landslide majority over his only opponent Brian Gould, following which he appointed Gordon Brown as his Shadow Chancellor, whilst Blair asked for, and received, the position of Shadow Home Secretary. As things turned out it was Blair's performance as Shadow Home Secretary that enabled him to indeed leapfrog over Gordon Brown. Blair was at pains to change the public perception that Labour were somehow soft on crime, as evidenced by his famous pronouncement that the Labour Party would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime"; a phrase first uttered on BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend on the 10th January 1993, and which was ironically enough thought up by none other than Gordon Brown himself. Blair was also fortunate in that Michael Howard had replaced Kenneth Clarke as Home Secretary in May 1993, simply because Michael 'Prison Works' Howard turned out to be a far more active and interventionist Home Secretary than his predecessor. The various debates and controversies that came as a result of many of Howard's proposals were, of course, largely designed to boost Howard's own personal profile in the country, but also succeeded in boosting his opposite number's profile as well.
Indeed Barbara Amiel wrote a profile of Blair for the Sunday Times which appeared on the 19th July 1992 (the day after Smith was elected leader) under the headline 'Labour's Leader in Waiting'. As it happened it was the paper's editor Andrew Neil who thought up the headline, being one of the early converts to the Blair cause, but he was joined by other journalists such as Alastair Campbell (Today), Patrick Wintour (The Guardian), Philip Stevens (Financial Times), and Andy Grice (The Independent). As far as these people were concerned, the handsome and charismatic Tony Blair appeared to represent the party's future, in stark contrast to the rather gloomy and remote figure of Gordon Brown, who did not appear that all that comfortable in the position of Shadow Chancellor. John Smith himself recognised this in conversation with Roy Hattersley on the 9th May 1994, when Smith offered the opinion that "Gordon's doing very badly", and that "he'd have no chance to be leader if there was an election now. Blair would get it". However as Smith pointed out, "fortunately there won't be an election tomorrow, so it will eventually be Gordon".
The 1994 Leadership Election
As it turned out John Smith was quite wrong about the timing of the next leadership election, as on the morning of Thursday, 12th May 1994 he suffered a fatal heart attack, thereby creating an unexpected vacancy. In the version of events later put about by the Brown camp, their man was the favourite to win, but was to be deprived of his inheritance by a combination of treachery and Machiavellian tactics. In particular it was alleged by the Brownites, that whilst their man was respectfully grieving the recently departed, Blair's campaign was up and running from the moment Smith's death was pronounced. Whilst there was some truth in this statement, - as one Labour MP claimed that on the day after Smith's death, he went to "see Gordon's office and it was silent", and contrasted it with the state of affairs in Blair's office which "was like a lunatic asylum", - it was rather beside the point, as the stark truth was that it was Blair, not Brown that was the favourite to win.
On the 12th May the Evening Standard reported that there was "only one potential successor to John Smith who is streets ahead of all other candidates", and named that person as Tony Blair who it predicted would form the "dream ticket" together with John Prescott as deputy leader. Indeed politicians from across the political spectrum such as William Hague and Robin Cook all confirmed that, in the immediate aftermath of Smith's demise, it was Blair who was the obvious choice as successor. Or as Gerald Kaufman later put it, "When John died it was clear to everyone that Tony was the obvious leader". One should however qualify this statement by noting that this was clear to everyone except Gordon Brown and his supporters, who were surprised and shocked by the widespread endorsement of Blair's candidacy. A convenient scapegoat for this unexpected development soon emerged in the person of Peter Mandelson.
Mandelson had been one of Brown's close friends, and Brown certainly expected that his old friend would back his leadership campaign. However over the weekend following Smith's death, Mandelson came to the conclusion that the Blair bandwagon was almost unstoppable. He therefore wrote to Gordon Brown on the 16th May explaining this to his friend, and offered his assistance in either helping Brown to counteract his perceived deficiencies, or in devising an exit strategy that would enable him to retire from the contest with good grace. It was this letter that was later described as being "most treacherous and devious" by the Brown camp, presumably since it fell far short of the whole-hearted support expected and in particular because it failed to deliver the expected secret weapon that would shift everything to Brown's favour. The interpretation placed on these events by Gordon Brown was therefore quite simple. It was Mandelson that had been briefing the press, and it was he that was responsible for all the pro-Blair comment and his emergence as the media favourite.
Unfortunately, as much as Gordon Brown might have believed that he was Smith's natural successor and that Blair should stood step aside, there was nothing he could do to prevent Blair from standing. The point was brought home to him on the 20th May, when Blair and Brown met at the home of Nick Ryden in Polworth, after attending Smith's funeral at Edinburgh, and Blair bluntly told him that, "Whatever happens, I'm going to stand. You can do whatever you want." This was also the now famous occasion when Brown managed to lock himself in the toilet and had to phone for help. However whatever political lesson might be drawn from that particular event, the fact remained that the Brown campaign was faced with the harsh reality that all the various polls of both the public and the Labour Party electorate were unanimous in confirming that Blair was the clear favourite in the coming leadership contest. What was worse was that Brown was in fact lying third behind John Prescott, and in the one thing that Blair and Brown could both agree on, was that if they both stood they risked splitting the 'modernising vote' and letting Prescott in.
Brown's one attempt to get his personal campaign off the ground was the speech he made to the Welsh Trades Union Congress at Swansea on the 22nd May 2004 followed by a repeat performance a week later at Luton, which heralded his proposed "assault on inequality". This rather worried the Blair camp since this was seen as a deliberate attempt by Brown to court the support of the left and outflank Blair. Fortunately, for Blair at least, this stratagem failed to work, and there was no sign of the left rallying behind their new found champion. Faced with that failure, there were those within the Brown camp who wanted to launch a personal attack on Blair and portray him as an "anti-trade union closet Social Democrat". Brown was however reluctant to go down this road, if only because it might have led to embarrassing questions being asked about his own previously close relationship with this anti-trade union closet Social Democrat. In the circumstances therefore Brown's only option was to withdraw from the race and extract the maximum concessions possible from Blair.
This was the background to the meeting that took place at the Granita Restaurant on the Tuesday 31st May, which was, it is important to note, merely the culmination of a series of meetings and conversations that had taken place between the pair over the course of the previous fortnight or so. After the Granita meeting, Brown duly made an announcement that he would not after all be standing in the leadership election, whilst the Daily Mirror published a full-page article by Brown in which he explained "why I'm standing aside for a united fight". Unfortunately not everyone was sufficiently naive to swallow this particular line, and Brown was particularly upset when Michael Brunson of ITN explained to viewers that this was no altruistic sacrifice, as Brown had withdrawn from the contest simply because he knew he couldn't win. Gordon Brown was so upset at this that he flew into a rage and fled into his private office where he could be heard kicking the furniture and screaming obscenities at the world in general and at Brunson in particular.
The Granita Pact
Exactly what passed between the pair that evening or indeed at their previous meetings is, of course, known only to the individuals involved, but nevertheless it was widely rumoured that the two had struck a deal, and there was much speculation as to what had indeed been agreed. The general consensus being that the agreement laid down the division of responsibilities between the pair in any future Labour government, and contained an undertaking by Blair to stand down as leader at some point in the future. However as the relationship between Blair and Brown soured even further and turned into open warfare, sources in the Brown camp would regularly brief journalists about Blair's failure to adhere to the terms of the alleged pact, whilst the message from the Blair clamp was a strict denial that any such deal ever existed. As it turned out Peter Mandelson had been asked to draft a memorandum outlining the points agreed at their meeting at the Granita restaurant, and all doubts were therefore expelled when The Guardian later obtained a copy of this very memorandum, titled 'Background only', which was apparently drawn up by Peter Mandelson at his Hartlepool constituency home on the 1st June and sought to summarise what it was that the two parties had agreed upon.
The document claimed that "both have strong support in the party" and that "the overwhelming bulk of this support is interchangeable between the two although opinion polls suggest that Tony has the edge". Since the opinion polls, as noted above, actually suggested that Brown had little or no chance of winning, these phrases were presumably inserted in order to satisfy Brown's wounded pride, as indeed was the reference to Brown's decision to stand aside as being "a decision which puts unity and teamwork above personal ambition". The substance of the agreement was that Brown would be granted autonomy over economic and social policy in any future Labour government, and the document specified that Blair was in "full agreement" with Brown's so-called 'fairness agenda'. Notably in the copy obtained by The Guardian, Brown had crossed out the words "full agreement" and inserted the phrase "guaranteed this will be pursued", although it was said that Blair apparently refused to accept this amendment.
But there was no mention whatsoever in the document of any agreement relating to the future of the party leadership. However, it appears that during their conversation Blair sought to console his old friend by indicating that he might well stand down as leader after ten years. Since it was expected that the next General Election (which Labour expected to win) would be in 1996 or 1997, Brown took this throwaway remark literally as a commitment by Blair that he would indeed stand down as party leader by 2007. Or at least that would be one explanation. Since no one will ever know with any degree of certainty exactly what was said between the two, it is perfectly possible that Blair used some form of words that at least implied a promise to stand aside at some defined point in the future.
In any event it is known that when Brown telephoned his supporters to inform them of his decision not to contest the leadership, he informed them that he had a "cast-iron assurance" from Blair that he would go after two terms. When Roy Hattersley heard this story, he said that it reminded him of the days of Wilson's government, when ministers would regularly go to Cabinet to have their pet project trashed and rejected, only to return and tell their departmental civil servants of their 'victory'. But although Hattersley might have believed that this 'cast-iron assurance' was merely a convenient face-saving white lie, it nevertheless became an article of faith in the Brown camp that Blair had given a solemn undertaking to stand down in favour of their man, just as it was the credo of the Blair camp that Brown had his chance in 1992 and blew it.
However as the Brown-Blair civil war raged on within the Labour Party, Gordon Brown and his supporters became increasingly impatient as Blair showed no signs of moving aside, leading, as Cherie Blair was later to claim, to Brown repeatedly "rattling the keys" of Downing Street over Tony Blair's head.
Indeed it is worth noting that the leak of the document to the Guardian in 2003 appears to have come from the Brown camp, and that the drama-documenary The Deal, made by Granada for ITV, and broadcast on the 28th September 2003 which began with the claim that "Much of what follows is true" largely followed the Brownite interpretation of the Granita Pact and cast Mandelson as the scapegaot. Both events should therefore be seen as part of the propoganda war then being waged by the Brown camp, which was seeking to persuade Blair to stand aside. They were therefore naturally disappointed when Tony Blair stood up at the party conference in September 2004 and announced his intention to "serve a full third term".
Of course, after the General Election of 2005 this only led to increasingly feverished attempts by the Brown camp to dislodge Blair from power. There was the attempted 'coup' of May 2006 when fifty Labour signed a letter calling for Mr Blair to name a departure date in order to end the "debilitating" speculation regarding the party leadership, followed by the almost identical 'coup' in September 2006 when another seventeen "normally loyal Labour MPs" put their names to a similar letter that left one of them, a junior defence minister by the name of Tom Watson, obliged to resign. The pressure eventually told and Blair 'named the day', leading to the coronation of Gordon Brown as Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister in June 2007.
Amongst other things, the history of the Granita Pact is important for understanding the psychology of Gordon Brown. He believes that he was the natural successor to John Smith, and was only cheated out of the leadership by the machinations of Blair and his henchman. He further believes that Blair repeatedly tried to renege on the deal they struck in 1994, and yet again deny him the leadership. Having now finally achieved his life-long objective, he will not give it up lightly.
Incidentally the Granita restaurant has long since closed down.
- Anthony Seldon, Blair (Free Press, 2004)
- Tom Bower, Gordon Brown (HarperPerennial, 2005)
- The Deal, (2003)
- Tom Happold and Kevin Maguire, Revealed: Brown and Blair's pact, The Guardian, June 6 2003
- Mark Davies, The Deal proves unfair to Blair, BBC News, 29 September, 2003
- Brown and Blair 'did make deal', BBC News, 4 October, 2003
- Blair 'rescued Brown from toilet', BBC News, 9 July 2007