A loveless marriage that survives

Talk about pregnant pauses. Even before the fuel crisis had shown every sign of blowing mayhem and mischief over the Channel faster than Hurricane Hector, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had three telephone conversations. Lots of achs and erms, over- enthusiastic bonhomie and earnest conversations about matters economic. They steered well clear of the allegations concerning their private war, based on new books from the political journalists Andrew Rawnsley and Julia Langdon, which were plastered all over the press.

Both sides in what Rawnsley calls a "tempestuous marriage" dismissed the "mischievous tittle-tattle". The third person in the "marriage", Peter Mandelson, also heaped scorn on the writers, who, he said, were only interested in selling books. This despite the reality that if you were looking for paw-prints in Rawnsley's book, then Bobby - Peter Mandelson's dog - seems to have left quite a few.

The lofty dismissal of the books by the key players themselves hasn't stopped their supporters from rebutting the allegations, point by point. So from Tony Blair's camp, we hear that he never phoned Charlie Whelan in the pub to find out what Brown had been saying about joining the euro; if Whelan said that, then he must have had one over his usual snifter, they claim. Gordon Brown's gang deny he ever shouted "You stole my ****ing Budget" at Blair, after Blair announced that he wanted to bring NHS spending up to the European average. He may have thought it, they admit, but he certainly never said it. And so it goes on - but the impression persists of a Prime Minister and a Chancellor at war.

Rawnsley refuses to name the person who described Gordon Brown to him as "psychologically flawed", despite all the pre-publication hype that led us to believe he would. Westminster gossip has it that the source was either Peter Mandelson or Alastair Campbell. Rawnsley exonerates Mandelson, but stops short of fingering anyone else. Does this mean it was Campbell? Or was it Jonathan Powell, or maybe even Tony Blair himself? We may never know - for Rawnsley, though disappointing his readers, is rightly abiding by the journalistic code that sources must not be revealed if they are speaking off the record. In any case, the stakes had become rather too high, after Tony Blair told the BBC's Question Time back in July that he'd take pleasure in sacking anyone from No 10 who was found to be spreading such rumours.

But back to our story of the feuding couple. It develops nicely: Brown, the "real Labour" man, is still basking in the glory of his comprehensive spending review. He's valiantly resisting the Tory tax cuts wanted by Tony. He has real beliefs, he's a man of substance, a towering intellect. Blair, on the other hand, is battered by events, blown off course, cares for nothing but Philip Gould's focus groups - and really has too much on his plate at home anyway, what with a new baby and an adolescent who's just discovered Budweiser beer. Blair has even admitted, to the Reader's Digest, that he'd put his family's privacy before his job - so perhaps he really is thinking of throwing in the towel. Brown will then assume his rightful mantle and the Labour Party will return to its red roots.

But would Brown Labour really be so different from Blair Labour? Of course not. There are Blairites and there are Brownites, and they don't like each other much. The former have a liking for tennis and Chablis, the latter prefer a pint and a curry. But the real differences in style mask a more fundamental coupling in ideology. The thing about this "tempestuous marriage" is that it had a very long courtship.

One of the enduring memories, over the years, from Labour conferences by the seaside is of Blair and Brown ambling along together, deep in conversation, plotting, we now know, their transformation of the Labour Party. Their "engagement" lasted four or five years: both were convinced Labour had to modernise, both took their cues from the Democrats, in the ascendant in the United States.

Blair and Brown agreed together to stick to the Tories' spending plans for the first two years: for Blair, it was to prove to the middle classes that he was no rabid socialist; for Brown, it imposed the financial discipline that enabled him to open the coffers this year. Both appear to have been caught on the wrong foot by the spread of the fuel protests; both are adamant that they won't give in to mob rule.

Sure, Brown is more tribal and connects much better with the party. Blair is a natural conciliator and has a better feel for the English middle classes. Brown remains suspicious of Europe and does not enjoy the European stage. Blair does. Brown is certainly fed up with having lost the premiership to his erstwhile junior partner. Who wouldn't be? But that doesn't stop the pair of them agreeing over the fundamentals in life, the very foundations of the Labour home, and the essential furniture that should go in it.

Brown's speech to the TUC stressed his own red Clydeside roots; it was full of words such as "socialist", "struggle", "solidarity" and "justice". Yet his overall message was harsh: no quick fixes, no short-termism, no policy lurches in response to events. New Labour to the core.

To assume that Brown would turn Labour's clock back is to deny him the credit he deserves for the party's successes. New Labour today is not Blairism or Brownism, it's Tony Brown, Gordon Blair. Do they have a deal on Brown's succession? It's said so, although the trust has gone from this marriage. Barring a bolt from the blue, Brown looks likely to end up - one day - as Labour leader. But those who believe that that would mark a return to the old Labour days are whistling in the wind.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun