Now, when it really matters, we are about to witness another reinvention of Gordon Brown. As Tony Blair finally makes way and the long weeks of the Labour leadership succession begin, Brown will seek a significant change of style. Out, I am told, will go the clunking fist; in will come a new “listening” Gordon. The buzzword, as the prime-minister-in-waiting tours the country, will be “empathy”, not a word readily associated with the Chancellor of the past ten years. Those around him have realised that there has to be a shift in the public perception of the Labour leadership if the party is to have any hope of recovery.
Despite the surface bluster about the 3 May elections providing a springboard for the next general election, no one in the higher echelons of the party – at least, no one around Brown – really believes it. The results have hit hard, especially in Scotland, where the full significance of the victory by the Scottish National Party is only just beginning to sink in. If Alex Salmond succeeds in forming a government he will provide a daily reminder to the new prime minister of his party’s waning electoral fortunes. The ballot for the Scottish Parliament represented Labour’s first failure in a national election since 1992. The once-unbeatable Blair-Brown election double act ran the SNP very close, but its efforts still ended in defeat, and next time around Brown will be alone.
The original idea had been to use the six weeks until Brown’s coronation to rally the party to the cause of the new leader. But those around the Chancellor now feel that such triumphalism would send the wrong message. Humility is thought to be more appropriate in the circumstances. Brown intends to tour Britain between now and Blair’s final departure, testing the mood of the nation. There will still be a series of hustings around the country for the deputy leadership candidates, which Brown is likely to attend even if no challenger from the left emerges for the top job. There will also be a series of more intimate events on the model of Labour’s Citizen Forums, in which around a hundred people are asked to discuss policy issues with senior politicians. In addition, Brown will spend time consulting the main left-leaning think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, Demos and the Social Market Foundation in an attempt to generate ideas. Any speeches he gives will not simply list the achievements of the past ten years, but will also contain significant admissions that mistakes have been made – an approach that does not come naturally to the Chancellor, but one thought necessary while the public remains so hostile to the government.
If Brown pulls it off, this will be a remarkable transformation of new Labour’s style. Though Blair always appears to be engaged with his audience, he has spent over a decade lecturing Britain as he has lectured Labour. With his easy manner, he never appeared to have a problem relating to people, but on important issues, most crucially the war in Iraq, he showed a startling lack of empathy. Brown, if anything, has the opposite problem: he always seems to be delivering a lecture, even when he is involved in the most casual of conversations.
It is easy to lose count of the false starts in the launch of the prospectus for a Brown premiership. In the early months of 2006, Labour strategists were already briefing that the prime-minister-in-waiting would begin to spread his wings with a series of grand, set-piece speeches on policy beyond his usual Treasury remit. These were designed as part of the plans for a seamless transfer of power. The speeches would showcase the Chancellor’s new vision while emphasising continuity with the Blair era. The first of these, on the subject of national security, did the job well. Before an audience of experts at the Royal United Services Institute in February, Brown established beyond doubt that he would pursue the war on terror at least as passionately as his predecessor. But a subtle shift in emphasis signalled how a Brown premiership might differ from what went before. For every curb on civil liberties deemed necessary for the fight against Islamic extremism, Brown would offer new judicial and parliamentary oversight. At the same time, parliament would be given the ultimate say in the future over whether Britain goes to war. The speech gave a tantalising glimpse of life under Brown. But it should have been followed by further speeches on immigration, the environment, work-life balance and, crucially, foreign affairs.
The speeches were to be a key element of what became known as Project Gordon. Developed jointly by the Chancellor’s team and Blair’s long-standing advisers Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell, this was quickly dismissed as a frivolous make-over – pink ties, chatty interviews and forced grins. It was mercifully short-lived. When Charles Clarke began talking about Brown being the “joint prime minister”, Blair got cold feet and talks over the transition stalled. As a result, Brown’s great lectures on policy were left on file, and polit icians and the public were left with little idea of what would differentiate him from the ancien régime.
The truth is that much will remain the same. For some time Brown and his closest allies have been studying the career of Al Gore, who was famously “the next president of the United States” for the best part of a decade before losing to George W Bush in the 2000 election. Gore had attempted to distance himself from a predecessor perceived to have been sullied by scandal. The strategy backfired spectacularly and he lost an election he should have won to a resurgent right-wing Republican Party. Brown knows he cannot dissociate himself from the Blair years, even if he wanted to, because David Cameron would then seek to position himself as the true heir to a centrist Blair legacy.
The view of Cameron himself has changed among members of Brown’s team. They have always seen him as a lightweight politician and that is unlikely to change, but they have now come to the horrifying realisation that such a lightweight could still beat them at the next election. They can take comfort from knowing that the Tories have yet fully to work out their strategy for dealing with the new adversary. Conservative HQ still cannot decide whether it is best to link Brown with the fading glory of the new Labour years or to represent him as a dangerous departure. While they remain unsure, Brown has some space to construct his own image, adopting the better aspects of the past decade and at the same time spurning the wilder excesses of Blairism – its obsession with the super-rich and its disdain for parliament, for instance.
Furthermore, signs of a coherent Tory vision are difficult to find. The recent speech on Cameron Conserva tism by Oliver Letwin, head of Tory policy review, was more of a comic turn than a statement of solid political philosophy. Here is Letwin’s definition of Cameronism: “It seeks to identify externalities (social and environmental responsibilities) that participants in the free market are likely to neglect, and then seeks to establish frameworks that will lead people and organisations to internalise those externalities.”
Brown’s first 100 days are not expected to be marked by a series of spectacular policy announcements to take the wind out of the Tories’ sails. The Chancellor’s “rabbit out of the hat” tax-cut trickery at the last Budget was regarded within his camp as a partial success at best. Any idea of a Roosevelt-style flourish as he enters office has been shelved, at least for the time being.
The most crucial part of establishing the credentials of the incoming premier, and confirming a break with the past, will be the outlines of a new constitutional settlement. It may not be an obvious vote-winner, but Brown believes that a commitment to curbing the power of the executive will help re-establish trust in the battered institutions of state.
Most intriguing of all is what form the Brown-Blair relationship will take in the future. One aide to the outgoing Prime Minister told me that the tribalism of the Blairites and the Brownites had always exaggerated the hostility of the two men themselves. “When it came to the crunch and Tony had to decide between the Blairites and Gordon on a key issue, he always backed Gordon,” he said. It has been suggested to me that the relationship will grow stronger when Blair leaves office and the everyday frustrations of working with the Chancellor are gone. As I reported last week, Blair intends to distance himself from front-line British politics as soon as possible by launching his foundation for interfaith dialogue. But there is always email and the telephone. Blair may yet have an important role to play in Brown’s Britain.