Why Gordon Brown left the most famous dinner in politics still hungry

In a revealing new book, former MP Ed Balls unveils a twist to the infamous ‘Granita pact’ story

It is one of the seminal suppers of politics – the night that New Labour was born in 1994 in a deal that hung over the party for years.

Details of the “Granita pact”, during which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown divvied up the party’s leadership in a restaurant following the death of John Smith, have been repeatedly revised, depending on who’s doing the telling. Now a witness at the table has revealed something new: Brown didn’t eat anything.

According to Ed Balls, Brown, who had agreed not to stand for the Labour leadership, scanned the menu of the now defunct Islington restaurant Granita and its offerings of polenta and pine nuts and chose not to order. Instead he raced back to Labour HQ and wolfed down a well-done steak.

“Gordon would have his steaks basically incinerated,” he says in an interview for the Observer Magazine. “I tried to have a word with him about that, but as my dad would say: ‘There are different people and they like their beef cooked in different ways’,” adds Balls, who began working for Brown in 1994.

Granita restaurant in Islington, where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown mapped out New Labour. The restaurant has now closed.
Granita restaurant in Islington, where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown mapped out New Labour. The restaurant has now closed. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Balls, whose latest book Appetite chronicles the former shadow chancellor’s life through food, offers other culinary anecdotes relating to the luminaries of New Labour. Early on in his political career, he says Blair’s close ally Peter Mandelson invited him to his flat on the premise he would help plot his future. What followed, says Balls, was a masterclass in power play. A bowl of soup and a salad were all he offered, a pointed reminder of who was in charge.

“It was beautifully done,” Balls says. “He’d thought about it carefully. It’s very memorable. The big food events in politics were not really about the food at all.”

Other Labour figures referenced include another party leader, Ed Miliband. Balls recounts bafflement over his attempt to lose weight. “When Ed Miliband was leader he was on a low-carb diet, I don’t know why. Yet for some reason his office had ordered lasagne for this big team dinner in the shadow cabinet room. We were meant to be talking about the future of the Labour party, but all we could do was watch Ed separating meat from pasta.”

Of course Miliband is well-known for a food-related gaffe. In May 2014 a picture of the then Labour leader eating a bacon sandwich prompted sustained commentary and widespread mockery.

Ed Miliband
‘He shouldn’t have been having a bacon sandwich in the first place, but he should at least have tried not to make it look like the sandwich was devouring him,’ says Ed Balls of Ed Miliband. Photograph: Ben Cawthra/REX

“You have to be very careful about what you eat on camera,” said Balls. “Never pasta. Pizza is tricky, too. I would have bacon and egg, but never in a sandwich. He shouldn’t have been having a bacon sandwich in the first place, but he should at least have tried not to make it look like the sandwich was devouring him. Labour’s challenge at the time was not whether Ed could eat bacon sandwiches.”

Relations with Miliband have never properly recovered from the events that led to Labour’s 2015 defeat, when Balls lost his seat after approaching the election confident he would be the next chancellor of the exchequer. “I should go and have a drink with Ed,” he says. “We don’t have a fundamental difference about policy at all. It’s just that we were both part of a tough time losing an election campaign.”


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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