Politics - John Kampfner sees into Gordon Brown's future

The subtext of the Chancellor's speech to the TUC was that Iraq was Tony Blair's war, nobody else's.

Gordon Brown has looked into a future he has craved for so long and seen that it provides little reassurance. His appearance before the TUC conference on 9 September will have reminded him that he would not be indulged if he became prime minister, after the many years of Blairism. Any honeymoon would be over in weeks. The Chancellor's reception in Brighton was sullen - a portent, perhaps, of things to come. The jokes fell flat; the exhortations to his "friends" to unite left them unmoved.

The speech went to the heart of Brown's problem, and to the problem of other cabinet ministers who might agree with the broad direction of policy but take issue with some of the specifics. It also testifies to the disease at the core of so much political journalism.

Brown knew what he was doing and he knew he had little choice. His protracted absence over the summer had invited the usual murmurings of plots. Although he could not bring himself to mention the term "foundation hospitals", he spoke positively of "modernised, reformed hospitals" with "extra freedoms for high performers". The same went for university tuition fees, though he was more oblique, calling on the unions "to support modern and reformed systems of funding". His warnings to union leaders to forget about "inflationary" pay rises and other concessions, while helpful generally to Blair, were heartfelt.

He was obliged to say something on Iraq. Anything else would have fuelled accusations of disloyalty. He faced the same dilemma on the eve of war in March, when he vehemently backed a policy that many around him were privately disparaging. This time, he was more circumspect: "Internationally, we will continue to back our leader, Tony Blair, in his efforts today to bring security and reconstruction to Iraq and to work with our allies to tackle the evil of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons proliferation around the world." The single sentence, which had taken a long time to craft, was composed of two uncontroversial but separate clauses. Who would not support efforts to rebuild Iraq, whatever their views on the invasion? Who would not support the broad goal of non-proliferation, whatever their views on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and their mysterious absence? Note the emphasis on "Tony Blair". The subtext was: this was his war, nobody else's. Note the words "his efforts". Note the absence of an attempt to justify the war through a link with WMDs or regime change. But still, it did constitute support, and in these difficult times, that is enough.

It is through the language of "loyalty" and "splits" that the media filter political discourse. I recall, when I first arrived in the lobby in 1995 for the Financial Times, making the cardinal error of reporting speeches by Michael Heseltine and Michael Forsyth at a Conservative Scottish conference - the former setting out his pro-European arguments, the latter taking the opposite view - just as they had been delivered, as contributions to a mature public debate. I saw with horror and no little self-doubt the ". . . in the worst crisis to hit the government since . . . stories in rival papers the next day.

Brown does have a certain licence to think intelligently in public. So, to a lesser degree, do the likes of David Blunkett, Peter Hain and Charles Clarke. There is a real ministerial debate to be had, in public, not about whether to reform public services (surely a given), but how. There was a real debate to be had by ministers not about whether to deal with Iraq, but how. If only they had taken place, and if only the media would have reported them soberly, Blair might have avoided many of his mistakes.

Paradoxically, the weaker the Prime Minister becomes (and, by extension, the stronger the Chancellor becomes), the less Brown will be able to speak up. He doesn't want to be seen as part of a burgeoning campaign to see off the PM - a point that is not lost on some union leaders. One, who is generally supportive of Blair, put it like this: "What worries me is that those who've always wanted to give him a kicking now see that he's at kickable height."

As Brown was whisked off from Brighton after an all-too-brief visit, Blair was preparing to do what he feels safe doing - warning union leaders and anyone else in the labour movement that they should be content with a glass half full, because the Conservative alternative would be worse (although his remarks to the TUC dinner did not live up to the billing to the media). The line, to which he resorts in times of trouble, testifies to his lack of ambition and self-confidence.

Brown can for the moment do little more than justify the half-full (or empty). He has to associate himself with the Blair record, however incomplete, because the future is so precarious. Only if he gets the chance to do what he wants to do, to fill that glass some more, can he be confident of a more enthusiastic reception.

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