'YouTube if you want to' was the phrased coined by one Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in an opinion piece that appeared under the headline 'YouTube is no substitute for knocking on doors' in The Observer of Sunday the 13th May 2009.

It was notable for a number of things. One might mention its author's use of the phrase "meta narrative", a clear indication that Ms Blears was trying to impress her intellectual credentials upon the nation, although more significant was that the phrase 'YouTube if you want to' was a clear evocation of Margaret Thatcher's famous line delivered at the Conservative Party Conference in 1980, "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning", and Labour politicians did not normally invite comparison with the Iron Lady. Naturally this led to speculation that Ms Blears wished to be seen as Labour's version of Margaret Thatcher, and that she therefore possessed an ambition to become Leader of the Labour Party herself and would soon be launching a bid to dethrone Gordon Brown. Which may well have been the intention.

However the substance of the article was the argument that, whilst the use of 'new media' such as YouTube might well be all the rage, it was no substitute for good old fashioned political canvassing such as "knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre". This was all very well except that Ms Blears's immediate superior, Mr Gordon Brown had recently utilised the services provided by YouTube to make a public policy pronouncement regarding MP's expenses. It has to be said that Brown's innovation was not regarded as a success. Aside from the fact that it would be more normal for matters of policy to be discussed in Cabinet and then announced to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister's performance on YouTube had been widely ridiculed, whilst his 'policy initiative' had rapidly disintegrated a day or so later in the face of a backbench rebellion.

Reminding the Prime Minister of this embarrassing failure certainly seemed to smack of 'disloyalty', added to which was the fact that Ms Blears also took it upon herself to make reference to the "government's lamentable failure to get our message across". Which might well have been accurate description of its performance to date, but Cabinet ministers were generally expected to be complimentary and supportive of the administration, rather than point out uncomfortable truths.

Blears's article was therefore seen as a "high-profile pop" at the Prime Minister and triggered a bout of renewed speculation regarding Brown's political future. Which is to say, since it was the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, and news was scarce, it gave the press something to fill their pages, be recycling their 'who could possibly replace Brown' material. The Deputy Prime Minister Harriet Harman thus felt obliged to make what was described as an "emphatic commitment" that she would not run for the leadership even if Brown were to step down, whilst two of the other 'fancied contenders' in the shape of Alan Johnson and Jack Straw, also made public statements to the effect that they had no interest in the top job. (Although Johnson was noticeably less than 'emphatic'.)

As a result within hours of the article being published Blears issued a statement saying that Brown had her "100% support", whilst a Downing Street spokesman subsequently claimed that Blears's comments had been misinterpreted, and that the Prime Minister retained his full confidence in Blears. Other accounts however described Brown as being "incandescent with rage" and that he had subjected Blears to what was commonly known as "the full hair-dryer treatment" over the weekend. Which in Brown's case meant that he had lost it again, and that she had been subject to one of his customary rages as he screamed at her down the telephone. It certainly gave David Cameron some material to work with at the next session of Prime Minister's Questions on the 6th May as he "gleefully read out part of her article to the Commons and repeatedly demanded to know why she was still in the Cabinet". A question that Brown naturally avoided answering.


Just as Hazel Blears was recovering from the shock of being blow-dried by Mr Brown, things got worse on the 8th May 2009 when the Daily Telegraph began exposing the details of what expenses Members of Parliament had been foisting on the taxpayer over the past few years. And of course as a member of the Cabinet, Ms Blears was amongst the first to fall under the microscope.

Ms Blears's crime was this. Back in 2004 she had nominated her London property as her second home for the purposes of claiming the Additional Costs Allowance from the House of Commons, which meant that the taxpayer effectively picked up the tab for paying such incidentals as the mortgage and her utility bills. However when it came to selling this property at a profit she elected to inform HMRC that it was her principal residence and therefore the profit was completely tax free. This was of course entirely within the rules and completely legal, and was nothing more than sensible tax planning. It was however also the kind of thing that the Labour Party might otherwise have described as 'tax avoidance' and pledged to ruthlessly stamp out.

It also didn't help that after selling her London home she had elected to claim the cost of her stay at the Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell, one of the "50 coolest hotels" in the world according to Condé Nast, rather than the more utilitarian surroundings of the Days Inn or the Premier Inn at Westminster who charged a more reasonable £99 a night; venues apparently preferred by other members of the Commons. Again this was perfectly legitimate, although perhaps it did not quite fit the image of the 'girl from Salford' that Blears had so assiduously cultivated over the years.

When the Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron announced that his MPs would be repaying various sums that they had claimed over the past few years (Cameron himself promised to pay the £680 cost of trimming the wisteria at his constituency home), Ms Blears took the hint and appeared on television waving a cheque for the sum of £13,332; being the amount of Capital Gains Tax that she would have paid on the sale of her London home. A worthy gesture perhaps, but not one that entirely satisfied her Salford constituents who appeared to be less than happy with her. Or as Ms Blears put it herself "This has been my worst time in thirty years of political life" and "I know it will take many months and years for my reputation to recover".

Within the space of a fortnight Blears had thus been transformed from a potential leadership candidate into a potential reshuffle casualty, with the press now speculating that she would be dumped out of the Cabinet in the expected post European Election reshuffle. Certainly Gordon Brown seemed to have crossed her off his Christmas Card List as he appeared on GMTV at 7.30 am on the 20th May to inform the nation that "What Hazel did was unacceptable". Although oddly enough when Blears herself was talking to reporters at her Salford constituency at 12.45 pm later that day she told them that the Prime Minister had expressed his "full confidence" in her, and thought that she was "doing a great job as Secretary of State".

It did however give rise to the question; since other members of the Cabinet such as Geoff Hoon and James Purnell had also banked profits on their ACA funded second homes, wasn't their behaviour equally "unacceptable"? Of course, Brown did not really have an answer to that question and would only say that "As far as I know there is no problem that needs to be dealt with". Nevertheless his gave rise to the accusation, made by Blears's "close friends", that Brown was pursuing a "political vendetta" against her. Caroline Flint, who would most certainly qualify as a 'close friend' of Blears, also popped up in The Times of the 23rd May to warn that it would "be wrong for the Prime Minister to move Miss Blears in a reshuffle", a point of view that inspired the Times to run the headline 'Brown faces Cabinet split on future of Hazel Blears'. On the other hand readers of the previous day's edition of The Guardian would have heard that Brown had privately told Hazel Blears that he had gone "too far" and that he had not "intended to be as critical as it sounded"; according to the customary "ministerial source" at least.

If nothing else, all this demonstrated that the government was indeed suffering from a lamentable 'communication failure'; its members could not even communicate with each other, still less with the public at large.


SOURCES

  • Hazel Blears, YouTube is no substitute for knocking on doors, The Observer, 3 May 2009
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/02/hazel-blears-labour-gordon-brown
  • Martin Kettle, Could Hazel Blears be Labour's Margaret Thatcher?, The Guardian, 5 May 2009
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/05/hazel-blears-margaret-thatcher
  • James Chapman, 'You're just not up to the job,' Cameron says as he demands Brown calls an election now, Daily Mail, 07th May 2009
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1177768/Youre-just-job-Cameron-says-demands-Brown-calls-election-now.html
  • John Harris, 'It will take years for my reputation to recover', The Guardian, 21 May 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/21/hazel-blears-expenses-cheque-labour
  • Andrew Porter, Gordon Brown is 'pursuing political vendetta' against Hazel Blears, Daily Telegraph, 22 May 2009
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5364423/Gordon-Brown-pursuing-a-political-vendetta-against-Hazel-Blears---MPs-expenses.html
  • Andrew Sparrow, PM seeks to mend relations with Hazel Blears, The Guardian, 22 May 2009
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/22/gordon-brown-hazel-blears-expenses
  • Philip Webster, Brown faces Cabinet split on future of Hazel Blears, The Times, May 23, 2009
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6346103.ece

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