If the opinion polls and bookmakers are to be believed, some time during the morning of Friday 8 May next year a small group of men and women will appear out of the of the Derby Gate entrance of the old Scotland Yard building on Whitehall, stride purposefully across the road, and assemble at the gates of Downing Street. After having their names checked by the officer on duty they will continue their journey up the famous street, enter via the equally famous and rather imposing black front door, and get to work. That work will involve running the United Kingdom for the rest of the decade.
When Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997, his senior staffers were household names. OK, they weren’t exactly household names. Except in their own households. And one or two of the households occupied by their political opponents.
But they had managed to forge a reputation for constructing and driving one of the most formidable political operations in post-war British history. Mandelson. Campbell. Powell. Gould. The architects of New Labour.
The group of senior advisors that plan to cross the threshold of Number 10 with Ed Miliband do not have formidable reputations. Their names do not strike fear into their Tory and Lib Dem opposite numbers. If those opposite numbers know their names at all.
They are the architects of One Nation Labour. Or is it the Politics of a New Generation? Or the more prosaic 35 Per Cent Strategy?
Whatever it is, their walk up Downing Street – if and when it comes – will be cloaked in anonymity. Partly this is a reflection of Ed Miliband’s desire to turn his back on the ‘celebrity politics’ of Labour’s recent past. Partly it’s because his advisors have themselves, in the main, shunned the limelight. And partly it’s because Miliband’s operation has, by common consent, been a bit of a shambles.
‘Poisonous’, was the picture painted by one former senior advisor. ‘Dysfunctional,’ said one shadow cabinet member. ‘A bunch of medieval courtiers, not an office,’ said another. The most positive description I could get was ‘It’s a work in progress. They’re learning. Slowly. But they are learning.’
But however poisonous and dysfunctional the court of Miliband the Younger may be, either by fluke or design, they have clearly managed to get some things right. It was this team that secured the Labour leadership against the odds. It was this team that has fashioned a small – though shrinking – opinion poll lead. And it is this team the bookies still have as favorites to win the 2015 general election.
And it is this team, rather than the shadow cabinet, that will decide the direction of Britain should Miliband win.
Tim Livesey, 54 Chief of Staff
The putative leader of Team Miliband is the chief of staff, Tim Livesey. His appointment saw plenty of raised eyebrows inside and outside the Labour family, given he was at that time serving at Lambeth Palace as chief of staff to Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury. He was hired just as Miliband was developing the love for political abstraction that would come to define his leadership. Many insiders worried that Livesey’s theological background would merely encourage further meaningless introspection.
Initially, however, the sceptics were pleasantly surprised. ‘The whole thing was rudderless when Tim arrived,’ said one Labour insider. ‘He brought some organisation and structure to the office.’ But those who were hoping Livesey would then expand his role to building a serious political operation were destined to be disappointed. ‘It’s odd,’ one Labour MP told me. ‘Tim isn’t wet behind the ears. He used to work in the Foreign Office, and in the Downing Street press office with Alastair [Campbell]. But he doesn’t really understand politics, and he certainly doesn’t understand the Labour party.’
Livesey’s main job now involves working alongside Charles Falconer on Labour’s transition to government. ‘Tim’s been appointed minister for hubris,’ one wag explained. Maybe. But those insiders who scoff at Livesey’s knowledge of their party do so at their peril. ‘Tim’s the guy decid-ing who gets what job in government,’ says one MP. ‘And who doesn’t get a job at all. His critics run around saying ‘Livesey doesn’t get how all this works.’ And Tim just sits there quietly, and strikes another name off his list.’
The clearest sign of Livesey’s power is a campaign to destabilise him led by Spencer Livermore, the well-liked former Gordon Brown aide who was recently brought back to help mastermind next year’s election campaign. ‘Spencer wants Tim’s job,’ said one Labour source. ‘If you look at the negative briefing around Ed’s recent Israel trip, which Tim organised, that was the Livermore camp. They’re trying to destabilise him’. The games, the games.
Stewart Wood, 46 Shadow minister without portfolio
By far the biggest personality within Ed Miliband’s orbit is Stewart Wood. Many advisers stay in the shadows. He has been made Baron Wood of Anfield (he’s a Liverpool fan) and taken into the shadow cabinet as minister without portfolio. He divides opinion more than any other member of Miliband’s circle.
A former foreign affairs adviser to Gordon Brown, Wood is seen by many people as the only serious political strategist on the team. ‘Ed’s surrounded by kids,’ said one MP. ‘He’s the only guy in there who owns a pair of long trousers.’ Another observer agreed. ‘He’s a proper political operator. He’s the one who can pick up the phone to people in the White House.’
Wood was at Ed Miliband’s side from the beginning. When Miliband was weighing up the fateful decision to run against his brother, Wood was his sounding board. ‘Stewart was the one who told Ed that, to win, he needed to drive a wedge between himself and David,’ says one MP. ‘He didn’t advocate personal attacks, but he was clear he had to go for him on policy. The graduate tax, the moral case for the 50p rate, a living wage.’
Wood’s clumsy efforts at briefing the press have become a running joke in Labour circles. ‘Whenever Stewart briefs he doesn’t just leave fingerprints, he leaves giant, muddy footprints,’ said one insider. ‘He can’t help playing games,’ another shadow minister complains. ‘Remember that Guardian letter urging Ed to be bolder on policy? Stewart was ringing round people urging them to sign it.’
Wood is also one of the few members of Miliband’s team who does not enjoy the anonymity that comes with working the backrooms of politics. ‘Soon after Gordon [Brown] became PM he had his first meeting with George Bush,’ recalls a former Downing Street workmate of Wood. ‘We talked about it a lot beforehand, and the strategy was clear. We had to put distance between ourselves and the Bush administration. They were toxic politically. So we have the meeting with Bush and his people, and Gordon’s in there with Stewart and a couple of others. And as soon as the meeting ends Stewart comes out and tells us all “Bush has given me a nickname”. Apparently Bush had this habit of giving senior foreign leaders staffers nicknames so he could remember them. So Stewart walks up to Damian [McBride – Browns senior press advisor] and says “you should drop that to the lobby guys”. Damian says “what are you talking about Stewart?”. So he tries again. “You should tell a couple of the guys. How Bush has given us all these pet names”. Damian just looked at him like he was nuts.’
Hungry for notoriety or not, Wood has made himself Miliband’s most indispensible aide. ‘I was called into Ed’s office for a meeting on [names policy area],’ says one advisor. “And the meeting ended, and we all got up and Stewart’s was the only one apart from Ed still sitting there. The next meeting was on [names issue]. A couple of hours later we all trooped back in to talk about election strategy. And Stewart’s still there. He hadn’t moved. Strategy, press, policy, economics, stakeholder engagement, foreign affairs. He has a say across all of it.’
Marc Stears, speechwriter
A less high profile, but still influential member of the inner circle, is Marc Stears, Miliband’s former university flat-mate who now works as his speechwriter.
Stears is viewed with suspicion by a number of the professional politicians and advisors who court Miliband. ‘Marc’s basically Ed’s security blanket,’ said one. ‘Whenever Ed needs someone to say how great he’s doing he will pipe up “Ed, you’re doing great”.’
But another Miliband observer thinks Stears has an important role to play in supporting his old friend. ‘Marc isn’t massively political. But the one thing I would say about him is that he’s one of the few people who’s solely there for Ed. Most of Ed’s team are using working for Ed as a ladder to move on to better things. Marc isn’t like that. Everything he says and does he does because he genuinely thinks it’s in Ed’s best interests.’
Tom Baldwin, 48; Bob Roberts, 48 Spin doctors
One of Livermore’s allies is Tom Baldwin, former deputy political editor of the Times. Where Tony Blair had one senior media adviser in Campbell, Miliband has three — Baldwin, Bob Roberts, formally of the Daily Mirror, and Patrick Hennessy, until recently political editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Baldwin is unpopular with his former colleagues in the parliamentary press pack, who regard him as excessively volatile. But as the man charged with managing Miliband’s ‘strategic interventions’ he has shown his worth, in particular over issues such as phone-hacking and the energy price freeze.
Roberts, who used to run a stall on Camden market, is popular, and has won a reputation for managing Miliband’s day-to-day media engagements with skill and integrity. He has a tabloid journalist’s eye for a good political attack story, and harries the Tories effectively. But some Labour insiders believe he occasionally fails to see the strategic political picture. ‘There are times when you have to say, “We could get a good headline today. Or we could say nothing and get lots of good headlines in a year’s time”,’ said one shadow cabinet adviser.
Hennessy is also liked by political journalists, who regard him as a ‘straight bat’. But some of Ed Miliband’s camp view him with suspicion, regarding him as a veteran of Gordon Brown’s inner circle. Hence his arm’s-length role managing press relations for the shadow cabinet. ‘Paddy’s main job is to get high-flyers like Rachel Reeves and Gloria de Piero on the park,’ said a friend.
While Miliband’s media team is seen as one of the more effective arms of his operation, many Labour observers question whether it would survive the transition to Downing Street intact. ‘That’s three big personalities you’ve got there,’ said one, ‘and No. 10 is a small building.’ It’s an open secret that Baldwin and Roberts can’t stand the sight of each other. Baldwin, who formerly had strong links with the Blair inner circle, is seen to have brought a convert’s zeal to Miliband’s efforts to move beyond New Labour. ‘Part of the problem is Tom’s always trying to prove to Ed he’s a true believer,’ said one senior adviser. ‘Where he should be talking Ed down from stuff, you’ll find Tom shoving him further up the ladder.’ Roberts, in contrast, adopts a more sceptical attitude towards the rather esoteric ways of his boss’s inner circle. ‘Bob’s a professional. He’ll do his job, but he isn’t going to start drinking the Team Miliband Kool-Aid,’ said a colleague. The expectation is once the election is over Baldwin will return to journalism or consultancy, and Roberts will take over the main briefing role in No. 10.
Greg Beales, 36 Director of political strategy
Below the big beasts come a diverse group of second-tier advisers. One of the most influential is Greg Beales, his head of strategy. A former McKinsey consultant, he was brought into politics by Tony Blair, stayed under Gordon Brown and is now minting policies for Miliband (including the energy price freeze). Beales is popular and respected, but frequently runs up against the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ culture of Miliband’s office. ‘Greg will present them with negative polling and there’ll be a lot of coughing and staring at feet. Then someone will say, “OK. But they like our energy price freeze, right?”,’ says one shadow cabinet adviser.
A Labour MP agrees. ‘Greg manages the feedback from the focus groups and the polling. And that means he’s actually the guy with the widest interface with the voters. Greg’s always trying to pull Ed’s people back towards that swath of former Labour voters the party lost under Blair. While every-one else is banging on about how to hang on to former Lib Dems, Greg’s popping up and saying, “Fine, but remember that if we want to win, there’s a few blue-collar, small-c conservatives we’re going to need to pull across as well.”’
Torsten Henricson Bell, strategist
A former advisor to Alastair Darling, he is ‘terrifyingly bright’ but ‘totally devoid of any politics’, according to one MP. ‘Every shadow cabinet member he sits down with comes away thinking he’s just met an ideological soul mate.’
He was initially brought into Miliband’s inner circle by Lucy Powell, Miliband’s first chief of staff who has since become MP for Manchester Central. ‘Lucy got Torsten in to try and help her get a grip. It was a shambles. And to be fair, he did get a grip,’ recalls one former aide.
One area that Henricson Bell focused on was policy. ‘It was great at first. He started producing all these bit of paper. And politicians like that. It gives them a sense of order. But after a while people started to say “OK, Torsten, you’ve set up these 28 different policy working groups. But what’s coming out of them?”.’
Eventually policy development was handed to Jon Crudass, fomer aide to Tony Blair ,and MP for Dageham. The transfer of responsibility is said to have angered Henricson Bell.
‘It caused all sort of problems,’ says one Labour insider. ‘Torsten started briefing against Jon. In fact, he even tried the old trick of placing stuff to make it look like it had come from Jon. Then one day Jon just fronted him up and said “look, I can spend fifteen minutes walking you through what you’ve been up to here, or you could just stop”.’
One problem for Miliband is both Henricson Bell and Beales are currently looking for safe seats at the upcoming election. ‘That tells you all you need to know about what they think of Ed’s chances,’ said a shadow cabinet member.
Anna Yearley, 36 Political secretary
One of the few senior women in Miliband’s team is Anna Yearley, his political director. She recently found herself in the spotlight over what was seen as her mishandling of the Falkirk selection scandal, which led some to see her as a lightweight.
Not so, according to one hard-bitten adviser I spoke to. ‘A lot of people don’t realise that it was Anna who was responsible for swinging that last handful of MPs over to Ed during the leadership election. She was the one who kept banging away at the second preferences. She’s got better trade-craft than people realise.’
A former adviser agrees. ‘It was Anna who told Ed the last month before the leadership vote, “You’re not going to do anything for the next two weeks except stand in the atrium of Portcullis House and glad-hand every Labour MP who walks by.” And he did. And it worked.’
Yearley works closely with Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, who has responsibility for managing Miliband’s relationships with the unions, and the broader left. ‘Forget the hype,’ said one MP, ‘the Labour movement is an alien planet to Ed. You get someone like Simon who actually knows what Manuel Cortes [head of the TSSA union] is actually thinking, and they’re going to grab him with both hands.’ Although a relatively recent appointment, Fletcher’s influence is increasing — something that Labour’s dwindling band of modernisers have noted with alarm.
Perhaps we should all be alarmed. In just over a year’s time, this Team of Accidental Rivals could be taking decisions that affect every single one of us.
Dan Hodges, who writes for the Telegraph, was once called ‘the Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest’
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