Since we’re in the thick of a candidate-mad season, it’s a good time for HBO to be airing the 2003 British film The Deal, about the secret arrangement in the early 1990s between Labour Party stars Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that eventually handed Blair the Prime Ministership. It’s essentially the story of a man who didn’t know he was in a primary race. Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) was the fierce, confident, witheringly humored and brilliantly antagonistic Scot who rose in Labour Party ranks at a time when Thatcherism needed a bruiser on the other side to point out its flaws. Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) was Brown’s admiring, people-pleasing sidekick (and pro-business enough to earn grumblings among Labourites that he was practically a Tory). But when the Labour Party leadership post became open, and the modernization of Labour that Brown and Blair championed became a possibility, the charming supporting player — who first met Brown in the 1980s when they shared a cramped office in the House of Commons — overtook the brooding star.
What makes The Deal intriguing as a prequel to The Queen (both were written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Frears and feature Sheen’s cockily ebullient Blair) is that it effectively and efficiently dramatizes the first key test of Blair’s belief that modernization is about the well-chosen image as much as anything. In The Queen, we see Blair soothe the populace by persuading an out-of-touch monarch to acknowledge her subjects’ desire to openly mourn the deceased Diana — no favorite among royals — as the “people’s princess.” In The Deal, Blair has to convince his friend and cohort — a guy who at 15 began writing his acceptance speech for Labour Party leadership — that the grim intelligence and attack-dog mentality that made Brown a great opposition personality isn’t enough to win back the government for their side come election time. As one Blair-supporting MP explains to Brown, politics is “the ugly business of making friends, keeping friends, being liked.” Which makes the prospect of a third Morgan-scripted film — supposedly addressing P.M. Blair’s reaction to the handover of American power from feel-your-pain Clinton to feel-my-force Bush — all the more intriguing.