Has Brown found the vision thing?

Fresh from being likened to Stalin, Gordon Brown sought to establish his credentials as a new and li

As part of his preparations for this year's Budget, Gordon Brown decided to spend more time with his family to keep himself in touch with the new priorities in his life. So it was in the past few weeks that his two young sons, John and Fraser, were allowed to come and play at their father's feet in the Treasury while he finalised the figures. Not quite the actions of an ordinary working man, but being Chancellor of the Exchequer is no ordinary job. All the same, this was quite something for a man proud of his Stakhanovite capacity for hard work (Soviet pun intended).

Brown's confidants have argued for some time that the Chancellor is a changed man, that his attitude to life and work has been transformed by fatherhood. This is why Lord Turnbull's comments about his Stalinist-Macavity tendencies hit such a raw nerve. Turnbull was calling him a bully and a coward, a particularly unattractive combination. Whatever the truth, the former head of the civil service was describing the old Gordon. Turnbull left the Treasury before John Brown was born. Yet the timing of the comments could not have been worse.

This was always going to be a big Budget for Brown and not just in the way economists use the term (a significant fiscal intervention). This is not just Brown's last Budget as Chancellor. It is the first he will have to work within as a prime minister. Whether, when the dust settles, it is interpreted as a tax-cutting Budget, a Budget for the poor, his green Budget, his education Budget, a Budget for business or all of the above, it is, more than anything else, his legacy to himself.

For this reason, it should be perused as the first statement of intent as leader of the country.

Brown was determined to leave No 11 with a bang rather than a whimper. His spectacular flourish at the end of his budget speech - a cut of 2p in the basic rate of income tax - certainly achieved that. The surprise element was reinforced by the abolition of the 10p rate in order to target tax credits at pensioners, as well as at the poorest children and families. This may turn out to be genuinely redistributive. The deal with major retailers to create 100,000 extra jobs is a more typical Brown touch. In an appeal to business that had appeared to be cooling on him, the Chancellor announced a cut in corporation tax of 2 per cent, which, he was keen to note, left Britain with a rate below that of his beloved, entrepreneurial US.

And yet, in some ways, Budget 2007 bears a resemblance to Budget 2006. A hike in road tax on gas guzzlers and an increase in tax credits for the poorest families were also fixtures last year. The commitment to raising spending in state schools to match levels in the independent sector were also announced last March. The mood music, too, is eerily familiar. A resurgent Conservative Party, the cash-for-honours inquiry, doubts over the Brown premiership: these were themes of last year's coverage, too.

There are, however, three significant differences. Last year, Cameron's Tories were already media darlings, but had no traction in the polls. Now they are 10 points ahead, or 15 when Brown is factored in as Labour leader. Secondly, a surprise rise in inflation to 4.6 per cent, according to some indicators, has raised questions about the long-term health of the economy. Thirdly, the unprecedented attack from Turnbull. There has been a tendency in Brown's circle to be dismissive of criticism, but in this case they cannot afford to ignore it. There is now a growing number of people who have worked with Brown willing to criticise his style in government. The Chancellor is a man who famously doesn't suffer fools gladly. But when cabinet ministers and top civil servants think they've been treated as fools, then powerful enemies lie in wait.

Willing participant

It is no coincidence that the first report from the government's six-month policy review was published in the same week as the Budget, and these two announcements should be seen as interwoven. If Blair's policy review was ever intended to lock Brown into the Prime Minister's legacy, then he has been a willing participant in this process.

Education is at the heart of the Budget, but it is a vision of schools, colleges and universities entirely consistent with the new Labour vision of the future forged by the Blair-Brown alliance. The very financing of the rise in education spending (£76bn to £90bn by 2011) is partly dependent on selling off a slice of the £6bn student debt. This would simply not have been possible on such a scale without reforms to higher education funding and a huge rise in student numbers that have happened under Labour.

It is a sign of Brown's determination to prioritise education that he has been prepared to announce the cash pledge to schools earlier than the long-term settlements for other government departments. They will have to wait for the Comprehensive Spending Review. The boost to city academies is consistent with this approach. It is fanciful to believe the Chancellor was ever opposed to private sector involvement in education or to giving schools greater autonomy. But it is noticeable that there is no mention of the new independent "trust schools", whose introduction caused a major backbench rebellion last year. The silence in this area suggests this particular addition to educational diversity is unlikely to see the light of day under a Brown government.

Vision thing

So does Brown's last Budget give an inkling of what "Brownism" might turn out to be? Has he finally discovered the "vision thing"?

On green issues, he is a late convert and yet to prove his credentials. As he showed in recent jousts with the Tories over a tax on air travel, Brown is not convinced that taxation is the best way of changing behaviour. His decision to hit the most polluting gas guzzlers with a hike in road tax rising to £400 shows he is shamelessly prepared to raise green taxes from people unlikely to ever vote Labour. Such is the Chancellor's dim view of humanity that he believes wealthy people will be perfectly prepared to pay for the privilege of behaving badly. Instead, he believes good behaviour should be rewarded, which is why he has brought in tax breaks for people who generate their own electricity through wind turbines or solar panels.

In his final outing before he plays the starring role, Gordon Brown gave a studied demonstration in the arts of political charm. His last lines, in which he delivered his income tax cut, wrong- footed his many opponents, particularly David Cameron. They were also designed to reassure those on Labour's benches that he can lead the party from the front, with a mix of radicalism, guile and personality.

This was the essence of Brown, for whom the demolition of his adversaries has been the driving force of his political life. With this Budget, he will hope he has given himself a new platform for the tougher mission ahead.

He has only rarely disappointed at these set-piece occasions, and this time in particular he rose to the occasion. But as prime minister, the challenges will be of a different order, relentless and day to day - and the lines will be altogether harder to rehearse.

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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