Channel 4 film, shown on 28 September
With Hollywood director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) in charge we might have expected a portrayal of the interplay between sex and power and the "dark side" of the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. What we got was more like a Mills and Boon story of rivalry between brothers for the hand of a good woman, (or in this case the Labour Party and, goddam it, the country), who had been let down badly by previous lovers (the Tories, the unions, militancy).
The Deal's starting point is the defeat of the Labour Party in 1983 and leads up to the famous "Granita meeting" when Blair met Brown in an Islington restaurant to do a deal over which one of them would be the next leader of the Labour Party.
The tension between the two politicians starts in 1983 when these two new Labour MPs Brown and Blair are forced to share the same room at the House of Commons - Blair happily and Brown reluctantly.
Frears follows the tension. He says he formulated the thesis for his drama when he saw Brown look on angrily as Clinton praised Tony at 2002 Labour Conference.
The star in acting terms is David Morrissey as Brown who shows another side to Brown's dour image - a feistier, more aggressive side. The Blair character is less well observed. The ambitious, upper middle class lawyer with no pedigree in the Labour Party is emphasised while the steely, Thatcher-like qualities which cartoonists like Steve Bell portray are absent - much more Bambi than Stalin!
The Deal was deliberately aired on the eve of the Labour conference and could have been a PR film for the Brown's campaign to be a future leader of the Labour Party and Managing Director of UK PLC. It contained all the elements of the Brownite spin: Gordon is a "true" Labour Party activist with working class credentials but also a "moderniser" . His understanding of the partnership between unions and big business is that it requires impartiality.
The drama takes through the hackneyed so-called "defining moments" of Labour's journey to power. Events which, so it is said, showed how Labour Party had to become more like the Tories to win an election (Michael Foot wearking a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph, Hatton shouting at Kinnock at Labour conference).
The Deal covered much of the same ground as Channel 4's earlier The Project and differed only in that Blair and Brown come across as captains of a team of spinmasters and aids rather than being controlled by them. The "Prince of Darkness" and master of spin, Mandelson, comes across as a hard-headed moderniser. The only hint of a sinister side is when he destroys an amendment to Blair's speech that Brown has suggested.
It was interesting that a director who is not afraid to portraying gay sexuality (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears) should avoid any reference to the "is he gay" press speculation that dogged Brown in the 1992-1994 period when he was being talked about as the potential future leader.
Instead the film showed Brown brushing off Blair's enquiries about his girlfriend and then sharing a quiet domesticity with his future wife. Gay "slur" rebutted, family man of the future assured. The qualities that focus groups score Blair highly for (family man and humour) are shown as Brown qualities in this film while confirming his own high focus group score (sincerity, Labour Party loyalty).
No one knows what was said on the night of 31 May 1994 at the Granita. So that allows Peter Morgan, the writer, to make it up. Brown extracts a promise from Blair that Blair would hand over the leadership sometime in the second government (i.e. between now and 2005).
Frear insisted on his contract containing an option to do a sequel covering the 1997 triumph, the decline of Blair (the loss of Mandelson, Hunter, Campbell, post-Iraq ratings and slump).
It seems some of the trade union leaders have fallen for the thesis of The Deal - trust Brown. Kevin Curran of the GMB has said that Brown's Labour conference speech was "a Labour speech by a Labour Chancellor with socialism at its base".
Yet Brown has enthusiastically carried out the Thatcher project of tax breaks for the rich, backing unelected bankers, support for big business against the workers, attacks on the poor, disabled, refugees just as much as Blair.
When Dexter Fletcher, as Brown's aid Charlie Whelan, says in the film that he can deliver the union vote for Brown, Brown replies "it's a sad state of affairs when we have to rely on the T&G." Whelan replies "better the T&G than a Tory". That is a false impression. Brown and Blair are Tweedledee and Tweeedledum: on the surface rivals, but in essence the same political animal.
Reviewer: Tim Cooper