There’s still the best part of a month to go until the most widely anticipated denouement since death and taxes: Gordon Brown’s ascent to the premiership. “It’s great for us,” confided a member of that small band of easily identified Brownite henchmen: “Gordon just tours the country saying nothing, and we get on planning for government.”
The Listen and Learn Tour can thus be approached as an egg-and-spoon race in which the Chancellor must pass the finishing line on 27 June without spattering the electorate with any mucky policy stuff. It seems to be working. The Brown campaign is rolling along at a rate that gathers no moss. Take last Saturday: Brown’s big event was his book launch at the Hay Literary Festival, but he was in the town for just a couple of hours, en route from Bristol to overnight in Sheffield.
The great man, tieless, chino-clad and smiling, did attempt to walk about the wet Welsh tent city, but this was quickly swamped by photographers and abandoned. His interaction with the literary classes was confined to two interviews with Ms Mariella Frostrup, one for TV and one on stage. Brown’s post-celebrity era begins breast-to-breast with Mariella, but David Cameron has already set himself up in opposition to it, eschewing “45-minute pit stops” in favour of immersion visits – such as his stints with a British Asian family and as a teacher – which are only subsequently reported on Webcameron.
Those in search of content, or “substance”, as it is becoming known in this Presbyterian age, probably left Hay less satisfied. Pointed questioners got no hint that the prime minister-designate will distance himself from Tony Blair’s Iraq policy. “We need to have a national consultation,” was as far as he would go on that one.
So we will have to wait until Brown is ensconced in No 10 before he lets us in on his big ideas (always assuming he has any). In the past few weeks Martin Bright, the regular occupant of this space, has skilfully laid out what may be in store, from economics ministries to electoral reform.
There is one “known unknown”, however, that could be the biggest surprise of all. Something the Chancellor mentioned at his proleptically victorious campaign launch. Just what did he mean by wanting to form a “government of all the talents”? Some of his loyal assistants, the sort who already regard the prospect of Blairites in a Brown government as a gesture too far, have been quick to play down the plans. They suggest that Brown simply means consulting more widely and appointing the likes of the Tory lords Sebastian Coe and Chris Patten to public positions.
But, intriguingly, there are others at the heart of Project Gordon who think an all-embracing government could go a lot further than that. “Will we offer jobs to Liberal Democrats?” mused one. “I’d say it’s more a question of when. Now, from a position of strength; in the run-up to the general election when we may need to; or afterwards, when we may have to.”
Could Brown really be about to invite Lib Dems to join his cabinet – Menzies Campbell as foreign secretary, say, and Nick Clegg at Environment? Unlikely maybe, but I have encountered few prepared to dismiss the idea entirely. On all opinion-poll and electoral evidence, Labour seems on course to do less well at the next election than at the last. In 2005, the slump in majority was attributed to a relatively small net move away from Labour and a slightly smaller net switch to the Lib Dems.
Gordon Brown needs those votes back. Even without an open change in policy, he could turn the page on Iraq by appointing Campbell, Britain’s best-known mainstream moderate opponent of the war. I trespass into such a secret society at my own risk, but I do know that Brown refers to Campbell as “my friend” and that both men have strong links with Edinburgh. The original Ashdown/Blair consultative committee on constitutional reform, formed after the 1997 election victory, was a largely Scottish affair, driven by Robin Cook, Robert McLennan . . . and Campbell.
Brown could claim to be completing the plans for “a progressive century” of centre-left government, abandoned by Blair when his landslide meant he didn’t need Liberal Democrat votes in parliament after all. Things have got a lot tighter in the division lobbies since then. Rebellions are habit-forming, and a decent quota of Lib Dems would at least cancel out the “John McDonnell” faction.
Careers for the brightest
As Campbell’s star fades, the attractions for him are obvious. He may have despatched his spokesman Mark Littlewood for talking publicly about the terms of a future coalition with Labour rather than the Tories, but nothing since suggests that Littlewood wasn’t speaking the truth. It does not count as foreplay with the Tories to inform the London Evening Standard immediately of Cameron’s flirty offer for the Lib Dems and Conservatives to back Greg Dyke for Mayor of London.
The cohort of ambitious young Lib Dems below Ming must also be wondering what lies ahead, given the convergence on the centre ground and simultaneously credible parties to either side of them for the first time in a generation. Intransigence in Scotland and Wales suggests a party that lacks confidence in spite of the gifts handed to it by electoral reform.
As noted on these pages last week, many of Labour’s leadership hopefuls are once again dangling electoral reform, or at least the introduction of the Alternative Vote system for Westminster. Many Lib Dems would settle for that. At a stroke, Brown could offer a real career to some of their brightest. The party might not allow them to accept the jobs, but such an outcome would hardly be Brown’s problem.
Meanwhile, in Africa, Blair is on a final dash around some of his greatest hits: Libya, Sierra Leone and South Africa. The organisation is more chaotic than ever, as if those Blair aides who remain know that attention is already turning from their leader. There is, however, no “White House” in the world stranger than Muammar Gaddafi’s wandering “tent”. Back in the 1980s Gaddafi was the west’s number-one bogeyman, while Saddam Hussein was courted. Now, after coming to heel in 2004 following the Prime Minister’s first visit to Libya, he is a “friend” whom Blair trusts to deliver on his commitments. Delivered today was a £900m oil and gas concession to BP, whose new chief executive, Tony Hayward, was also in the tent.
Gaddafi has such a poor human-rights record that the British courts refuse to send asylum-seekers back to Libya. It seems there are no absolute rules in Blair’s world as to who earns friendship and who merits military intervention.
Adam Boulton is political editor of Sky News, now also available online in Second Life. Martin Bright is away