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15 January 2007

Brown’s year zero

The wait will soon be over for Gordon Brown. After dogged resistance, the Blairites have given up tr

By Martin Bright

Gordon Brown is not just preparing for power. He is creating a government in waiting. The Chancellor is now so confident of his new position that, in front of Tony Blair’s eyes, he has begun to assemble a parallel cabinet. Brown, I am told, intends to skip a generation. The appointments are to be bolder than anything predicted so far. This will be his year zero.

Despite the Conservative-led clamour, Brown will not be bumped into calling a snap election. When the Tories challenge the legitimacy of the takeover, he will counter with a single name: Macmillan. The Brown camp has been studying the first premiership of Harold Macmillan, who revived his party’s fortunes after the foreign disaster of the Suez crisis, but did not call an election for two years after taking over from Anthony Eden. One lesson Brown will have drawn from Supermac, who was also chancellor before succeeding to the top job, was that he left it too long to clear out the dead wood from his cabinet. Unlike him, Brown will not wait five years to carry out his “night of the long knives”.

Brown’s conciliatory words about creating a “cabinet of all the talents” reflect a genuine aspiration, but not to the extent of sticking with any Blairite ultra-loyalists who remain in the cabinet, or bringing any back. John Reid’s chances of survival are shrinking, even if he outlives the latest Home Office crisis.

As ever, the timetable is uncertain, but the working assumption is that Blair will step down as Labour leader on 4 May after the Welsh, Scottish and local elections, although he will stay on as prime minister to facilitate the handover in mid-June after a six-week leadership election.

The Chancellor believes that many Blair loyalists will want to make way, either leaving Westminster altogether or heading for the Lords. He is said to be banking on at least six or seven vacancies even before he has to start sacking people. He will clearly have to consider deputy leadership candidates who poll well, with at least two of those who fail to get the number-two job expected to receive other cabinet posts.

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With the exception of Alistair Darling, Des Browne and the deputy leadership candidates, most of the cabinet could be more than a decade younger than Brown himself. Among this new generation the Blairite/Brownite split is not con sidered nearly as tribal as for those whose positions became ossified in the sectarian battles of the first two Labour governments. Brown is now looking closely at ministers of state in each department to step up. All three in the soft-Blairite triumvirate of the pensions minister James Purnell, the immigration minister Liam Byrne and the health minister Andy Burnham are being considered for cabinet posts. They have each been called in for a series of one-to-one meetings with the Chancellor to discuss their record, and their prospects.

Brown can now afford to be brazen – these meetings are not clandestine powwows, held under cover of darkness at secret locations. They have become part of the regular process of government, with No 10 unable to intervene as power slips away.

A number of Brown’s allies have established credentials in government. Darling’s uncontroversial tenure at Transport and at Trade and Industry makes him a shoo-in for chancellor. Douglas Alexander is being talked up as a possible education secretary, although his Scottishness may be thought a block on dealing with the English state system. But Brown has made it clear that education will be his main priority when he takes over, and he will want one of his most trusted lieutenants in the post. The Department for International Development will also become a major office of state and Brown could keep Hilary Benn in post to signal its importance, though the Chancellor is thought to favour him to replace Margaret Beckett as foreign secretary.

Of the younger members of Blair’s final cabinet, the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, has privately said he expects to stay in his job and Brown is also said to believe Miliband should remain. Ruth Kelly’s cabinet status is less secure. Although she is thought to have done a good job as Communities Secretary, her reputation as a safe pair of hands is not established and her decision to educate her son at a private prep school will not have helped her case. Brown’s closest confidants, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, although inexperienced ministerially, could make the leap straight into the cabinet. Such promotions would be a bold statement of intent. I am sure Balls would be keen to do the Development job if Benn moved to the Foreign Office and Ed Mili band’s work with the voluntary sector at the Cabinet Office would make him a contender to become Kelly’s replacement.

Hug thine enemy close

The Chancellor is known to be very concerned about the limited number of senior women he can promote, with Yvette Cooper the only probable cabinet addition. Harriet Harman will expect to be made party chair, whether or not she becomes deputy leader, but Tessa Jowell, Patricia Hewitt and Beckett could all be gone before the end of the year. This could leave the way clear for Beverley Hughes, who resigned from the Home Office in 2004 over a visa scandal, to make a spectacular entry into the cabinet.

There remains one formidable problem in the person of Reid, who is the only serious challenger to Brown’s authority. The Brown team sees a certain logic to hugging the enemy close and, more importantly, may feel it necessary to allow Reid to push through his trumpeted reforms at the troubled Home Office, although the present crisis over unregistered criminals will not help him.

The “Reid question” has now been distilled to a finely calibrated risk analysis. Day by day, Brown’s aides watch the Glaswegian’s every movement to assess whether he will be more dangerous inside or outside the tent. Brown will have observed how quickly the influence of his former detractors diminished once they left government, and it will diminish further without Blair’s patronage. The Home Secretary’s recent speech to a Labour rally was seen as an attempt to stir up the old Blair-Brown divisions and, unsurprisingly, did not win him new friends in No 11. Brown is said to bridle at the idea that by keeping Reid at the Home Office, he will be seen to reward him for not standing for the leadership. There is a growing likelihood that he will ask Reid to make way.

Such is the changed atmosphere in Downing Street that these manoeuvrings are no longer seen as undermining the Prime Minister, but as a necessary preparation for the transition. The silence of Blair’s allies on the matter suggests he has finally accepted the inevitable.

Despite Brown’s confirmation that education will be at the heart of his programme, the details remain hazy. For years, Brown’s aides have briefed behind the scenes against Blair’s reforms in education as in health. That has led critics to Brown’s left and right to believe, wrongly, that a Brown government would reverse these reforms in a return to a more statist approach. It is true that Brown is not entirely convinced by Blair’s pet project, the city academies. The inde pendent trust schools that followed in their wake are likely to wither on the vine. But the view in the Treasury is that the reforms have failed not by being too radical, but because they are too incremental. Brown now has two senior advisers, Dan Corry and Gavin Kelly, working full-time on plans for schools. Both are new Labour to the core, with Kelly having argued in the pages of this magazine for an increase in private sector involvement.

This raises the intriguing prospect that a government created in Brown’s image, with a loyal set of young cabinet ministers, advisers and civil servants, could be truer to the spirit of new Labour than Blair’s ever was.

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