Capitalists cheer a hero of the left

Gordon Brown has become the John Prescott of this government. He has mastered the art of reassuring traditionalists in his party, while sending out an uncompromisingly new Labour message. As long as Brown is there, I hear some trade union leaders and others observe, the government will have a radical edge.

Originally Prescott was cast to play this "reassuring role". He had performed the part with irascible charm when Tony Blair embarked on his Clause Four crusade. Possibly he will play it again if, as seems increasingly likely, Ken Livingstone is blocked from standing as a potential mayoral candidate in London. I am told that Prescott is one of those who will be asked to tour the studios to explain the decision. But, for much of the time, the Deputy Prime Minister is on the margins of the government, in charge of a big, complex department that does not greatly interest Downing Street.

It is not always obvious how Brown is able simultaneously to rouse the passions of entrepreneurs and a certain type of left-wing party activist. He is as blunt as Blair in his dismissal of old Labour, and the two of them speak a similar language, deploying the same phrases. At the moment, neither makes a speech without stressing the need for "enterprise for all". The phrase has replaced "for the many and not the few" as the flavour of the month. Both sound-bites were invented by Brown, who is the author of much of the language associated with new Labour.

Nor does his ambition to lead the party constrain him from criticising trade union leaders. Brown was dismissive of John Monks and John Edmonds, when they dared to criticise his new tax breaks for share options. These are mere trade union leaders and you should not pay much attention to them, was the thrust of his message to John Humphrys on the Today programme, before he headed for the adulatory CBI conference.

If Blair had made such comments, all hell would have broken loose, but by the end of that week Edmonds was suggesting that Brown should be leader of the Labour Party. Edmonds told a meeting of Cambridge students that Brown had more of a "feel" for the party than Blair. Edmonds is not alone. I checked with some ardent Brown admirers in the media, who are on the left of the party. No, they disapproved of the new tax breaks. Yes, Brown was still their hero.

He has not always done the high-wire act so effectively. The government may have ended the boom and bust cycles in the economy, but the political reputations of its members oscillate wildly. Brown has boomed and nearly gone bust on a couple of occasions since the election. Not so long ago, it was highly fashionable to predict when precisely Blair would sack him. Indeed, in an interview with me just over a year ago, the same John Edmonds who is now cheering the Chancellor criticised him for not showing enough interest in trade unionists. And talking of oscillating reputations, Edmonds singled out Peter Mandelson for praise as a sympathetic trade and industry secretary. Since then Mandelson has boomed, gone bust and is booming again.

Tuesday's pre-Budget report, in effect a mini Budget with mini proposals, explains Brown's current wide appeal. He was tough on those contemplating hefty pay rises: buy some shares instead, declared the Labour Chancellor. But accompanying the prudence and entrepreneurship were a significant extension to the New Deal and, with a characteristically populist flourish, free TV licences for the over-75s. In a minor key, these proposals underline the factors that drive his policies - encouraging work, making work pay, and more help for those "incapable of work". (Quite where cuts in disability benefit fit into those criteria is a mystery to me, but that is another story.)

Blair, to his credit, does not look on jealously when his Chancellor is praised as a dominant force in his government. He is self-confident enough to acknowledge the scale of the force, in public interviews and in private. Their relationship is a complex one and there are times when seemingly near-fatal tensions swirl around No 10 and the Treasury. But the double act remains the most potent in British politics. Although Brown wants to be prime minister, he knows he will only get the job if the Blair premiership is deemed to be a success. The two of them are too closely identified for one to sink and the other to rise. Blair feels secure enough in himself to give Brown plenty of room to breathe.

Indeed, I bumped into an adviser to the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, the other day, who expressed amazement that Blair did not have his own heavyweight economics team to counter the Treasury. The Jospin entourage has concluded that Blair cannot be very interested in the details of economic policy. There may be something in that, but it is also the case that he broadly trusts Brown to get on with it, as he trusts him and Mandelson to take charge of the next election campaign. Brown and Mandelson were not on speaking terms during the last campaign - and Labour won a landslide. Goodness knows what might happen if a rapprochement is brought about.

The next election campaign? There is a view gaining currency at Westminster that the government has lost its way in recent weeks. Ministers are in a muddle over Ken Livingstone; the cuts in disability benefit seem to be an example of prudence without a purpose; fox-hunting may be banned, and then again it may not be.

But all of this fades into insignificance if the economy is performing well. Quite deliberately, the Chancellor did not play all his cards on Tuesday. There are almost certainly two more Budgets before the next election. Brown has more money to give away before he joins Mandelson in the war-room at Millbank.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome