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.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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