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I worked on Gordon Brown’s doomed 2010 election campaign, here’s what went wrong

To those Tory HQ staffers toiling to the end of a doomed campaign – if the polls prove correct – I feel your pain.

In 2010, I had a front-row seat for Labour’s defenestration from office as Gordon Brown’s control-freak tendencies and bubbling rivalry with Tony Blair sent strategists into despair.

For three months, I was sequestered at Labour’s Victoria Street headquarters, working as a “writer”, anonymously crafting newspaper opinion pieces and Q&As in the name of leading figures ranging from Brown to first secretary of state Peter Mandelson.

Every election campaign will have a backroom team ghostwriting words to meet the demand for first-person responses from party leaders.

Working alongside Alastair Campbell, who returned after his stint as Blair’s communications director to try and help Labour confound the polls and win an unlikely fourth term, we were able to tap into the former spin doctor’s extensive contacts.

How about an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson, telling readers why they should vote Labour, wrapped up in a bow for a Sunday paper?

Could the legendary manager say “it’s squeaky bum time for David Cameron” as polling day approached? A thumbs up from Fergie.

Getting sign-off for an article in the prime minister’s name proved more challenging. One morning, a draft arrived unbidden from Number 10, its capitalised style betraying it as Brown’s own work.


Stirring stuff but not quite print-ready – and also at odds with the article Brown’s team had been commissioned to write for The Guardian.

The only way to ensure a Brown article would make a deadline was if the prime minister, notorious for scrutinising and adding changes to each piece, right down to a local paper op-ed, was kept out of the loop.

“How did Gordon know about this op-ed?” asked one adviser.

“When Gordon intervenes, the process gets confused,” admitted another. “Welcome to my world.”

The best way forward would be to “ignore GB, as long as we maintain that line when he tries to pick each of us off,” concluded another.

After passing through many hands, a final version, incorporating the essence of Brown’s draft with the messages his team wanted to put out made the Guardian’s splash (Headline: “Battered PM finds his voice” – how little did they know) on the eve of polling.

The Guardian front page on 4 May 2010

A piece of cake though compared to the task of penning an op-ed in Blair’s name, urging voters to support his Downing Street successor, with whom he had a difficult relationship.

Blair set aside the still-raw tensions between the pair to join his former chancellor on a campaign visit. Baffled by Nick Clegg’s popularity surge after the first leaders’ debate, Blair gave his own rallying address to party staff saying Labour had to counter the apparent Lib Dem threat.

A draft of the Blair article, praising Brown’s stewardship of the economy during the financial crisis with the promise that “Gordon will emerge as the right choice for Britain” was shown to Blair and returned with hand-written amendments – “Gordon” was crossed out and replaced by the more corporate “Labour.”

Blair wanted to include more on academies in schooling, reforming the NHS, and action on antisocial behaviour – features of Labour’s record in office more associated with the Blair years than Brown’s three-year addendum, perhaps. “The country is lucky to have a man like Gordon”? Extraneous to the message.

This revised Tony-friendly version was inevitably returned with further observations from the Brown side, highlighting his own greatest hits.

With draft upon draft circulated but no agreement in sight, Campbell interceded to bring an end to this outbreak of the TB-GBs (the initials of Blair and Brown), his experience of managing this particular relationship being more extensive than mine.

Numerous deadlines having already passed, the “why I’m backing Gordon” exclusive was ultimately quietly shelved.

As the polls consistently showed David Cameron’s Conservatives heading for victory, the strategy narrowed to shoring up Labour’s core vote and working around Brown’s obvious unease with the touchy-feely requirements of an election campaign.

Internal concerns over the prime minister’s awkwardness coalesced when he was recorded calling Gillian Duffy, a pensioner who challenged him in Rochdale, a “bigoted woman” – a genuine “f*** it, let’s all go to the pub” moment.

Labour could still rely on celebrity supporters though, including Eddie Izzard. Yes, he would put his name to a “why I’m backing Labour” article however Eddie (who now also goes by the name Suzy) was very busy so could we send over a draft?

But how do you compose an article in the style of a comic famed for their unique verbal flights of fancy?

Do you try some gags, play it straight or mix it all up together in an unsatisfactory melange? “It doesn’t read like Eddie. Eddie speak is not easy,” a representative said of the first draft. Well, quite.

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Eddie Izzard speak to students at Brighton and Hove sixth form college on April 16, 2010 in London, England. The General Election, to be held on May 6, 2010 is set to be one of the most closely fought political contests in recent times with all main party leaders embarking on a four week campaign to win the votes of the United Kingdom electorate. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Gordon Brown and Eddie Izzard speak to students at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College in 2010 (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty)

After more to-ing and fro-ing, Izzard, who unsuccessfully sought selection for a seat at this election, signed off on a version proclaiming “Gordon is a serious man, for serious times”.

During the final days of the campaign, the backlog of requests for articles and answers from the prime minister – from national and local papers to magazines, faith community weeklies and foreign publications – had become so great, the process of multiple checks before approval had begun to fall into abeyance.

It’s tempting, if you’re penning an op-ed by the PM for the local paper in Barrow-in-Furness, the centre of submarine building in the UK, to firm up Labour’s commitment to ordering more nuclear vessels. Or to promise readers of the Sentinel a boost to Labour’s Sure Start Children’s centres in Stoke.

Only in the fast-receding circumstance of Labour being re-elected, would anyone notice that the party might have been saddled with millions of pounds of new spending commitments?

So it was a sobering shock, as party workers gathered around screens for a beer and pizza-fuelled election night wake, when the results revealed that Cameron had not won his expected majority.

A pumped-up Brown returned to Victoria Street at dawn, shook hands with staffers and was sequestered in a private room with Campbell and other confidants to see if he could yet piece together a minority government.

Perhaps those “personal” messages from Gordon to readers of the Newcastle Chronicle and South Wales Argus helped hold up Labour’s vote and made the difference?

Brown had to quit Downing Street in the end but the denouement might at least console those Conservative HQ toilers who fought a rearguard battle for Rishi Sunak in the face of D-Day gaffes and gambling scandals. It ain’t over until it’s over.

And even if it is, at least you’ll leave with some great war stories – and in my case, a signed “thank you” photo with Peter Mandelson.

Adam Sherwin's signed ?thank you? photo with Peter Mandelson after working on Labour's 2010 election campaign Photo: Supplied by Adam Sherwin
Adam Sherwin’s signed ‘thank you’ photo with Peter Mandelson after working on Labour’s 2010 election campaign

Election 2024

The general election campaign is almost at an end as polling day looms on 4 July. Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and other party leaders have battled to win votes over six weeks, and i‘s election live blog has covered it from the first moment.

Every party’s manifesto is out, with Tories, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Reform UK sharing why they should get your vote. Read i‘s manifesto comparison on each of the main party’s pledges on issues such as NHS, education, defence, devolution, tax, spending, HS2 and housing.

You can read the polls, check which constituencies could be deciders, ensure you’re informed about who to vote for, and make sure you’re weather-ready before you head to your polling station on Thursday.

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