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11 June 2001

At the court of King Gordon

The 2nd Term - 2004: despite previous denials, Blair steps down after all and hands the cro

By Gary Gibbon

Even before the votes were counted, Labour folk were pondering how life might change after the election . . . the leadership election. None of Tony Blair’s denials has succeeded in killing off that cherished piece of new Labour folklore: that, way back in 1994, at the Granita restaurant in Islington, north London, Tony Blair promised Gordon Brown that he would lead Labour into only two general elections. At some point in the next five years, it follows, Blair will stand down, endorse his Chancellor as the anointed heir, and watch as Brown sails into office on a wave of grateful adulation.

The acclamation, however, is not universal, and conversations with Labour politicians make it quite clear where the cleavage comes. Ask backbenchers about the prospect of a Brown premiership, and their spirits soar. “It would be like that great mural in Siena depicting good government,” rhapsodises the veteran maverick and left-winger Bob Marshall-Andrews. “People would dance round maypoles, feast at trestle- tables while buxom young ladies looked on, as well- maintained casements are opened.” Others speak glowingly of the man who puts the “Labour” into “new Labour”, who would bring “principles” back into No 10, “end cronyism” and “kill the schmaltz”.

But talk to those who have actually served in government with Brown and, after the statutory tributes, most quickly slide into splenetic abuse. The uniform message is that if people think they’ve had a government headed by a control freak for the past four years, a Brown premiership would take it to new levels. One minister said: “Gordon doesn’t negotiate – he writes terse letters of instruction.” Another: “You’d get government in the Vladimir Putin mould.”

Alistair Darling, when chief secretary at the Treasury, once questioned a Brown policy proposal, and found himself taken off the circulation list for related papers. Blair has been accused of reducing Cabinet government to bilaterals on his study sofa. Under Brown, many ministers fear it would be reduced to written diktats.

Exactly who would serve in a Brown administration is a perennial topic of tea-room gossip. Darling learnt his lesson, and is now counted as a loyal – some would say submissive – colleague. But take a look at the pre-election Cabinet, and Brown could count only on Margaret Beckett, Nick Brown, Andrew Smith and Darling as allies (although Clare Short admires his support for international aid). Brown would have to appoint a number of big beasts inherited from Blair’s government and, somehow, learn how to get on with them. “Brown only gets on with people he controls,” one minister observed, adding: “He can sulk for Scotland.” Brown’s feud with Robin Cook, once a friend, has its origins in a personal disagreement around 30 years ago, which no one except Brown, it seems, can now recall.

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Politically, Brown and Cook fell out over devolution in the 1970s, with Brown the enthusiast for Scottish home rule. But a Brown premiership would see a continuation of the Blair style of uneasy relations with devolved institutions. Brown rails against Scotland’s First Minister, Henry McLeish, because he ploughs his own policy furrow. And Brown and Blair have rarely been closer than when they united against Ken Livingstone becoming the official Labour candidate for mayor of London.

Brown’s back-bench admirers speak of “a natural pluralist”, who “is self-confident enough to take on other opinions”. However, one of his government colleagues says: “Gordon as Prime Minister would be Secretary of State for Everything – and work himself to death in three years.”

That famed work rate and the Calvinist drive would quickly transform the culture around No 10. Paddy Ashdown recently speculated that, with Brown in No 10, “Britain would move from Camelot to Gormenghast in a single night. No light would shine, owls will hoot, happy hour would be abolished, and a spectral Prime Minister would be sighted only rarely, slipping in and out of Downing Street in the hours of darkness.” Certainly, Liberal Democrats would not be crossing the threshold of No 10 very often. Neither would “luvvies” – although Brown’s wife, Sarah, with her public relations experience, would try to soften the Treasury hard man’s image. The trappings, the very name of “new Labour”, would disappear (likewise “the Third Way”). The “shirtsleeve premiership”, the age of Downing Street designer casuals would be at an end. But the visitors’ book would look similar in one respect: Brown shares Blair’s liking for intellectual seminars at Downing Street. He would be Britain’s most self-consciously “intellectual” prime minister since Arthur Balfour, and he would be Britain’s first PM to hold a PhD.

Like Blair, Brown is a Christian. But Brown, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, hardly ever mentions religious faith. It is hard to find an occasion when he has publicly used the word “Christian”. His faith is not predestinarian, but it is driven by concepts of sin and waste; Blair’s Christianity is more joyful.

Brown is tolerant and, in that sense, a true child of the Sixties, even if he did wear a tie all through university. Some of his closest political friends over the years have been gay. Yet he has never found it easy to speak in public for their rights. One lifelong friend says that this can be explained by the “buttoned-up morality” of his upbringing. Brown would find it difficult to articulate some of the socially liberal aspects of Blairism.

In policy terms, there would be far more continuities than the Brownites like to admit (even Brown’s closest friends could not claim that the Chancellor has been unduly constrained in the first term). The Brown manse traditionalism, for instance, extends to education policy. The young Gordon Brown learnt by rote and, unlike many of his Labour government colleagues, was never won over by “trendy” educationalist talk in the Seventies. There would be continuities of practice, too. Parliament would find itself no more loved and cherished than it has been by No 10 these past four years. Brown resents sitting around in the chamber, a place he has dismissed as “more geared towards eloquence than excellence”.

The weekly audience at Windsor Castle would no longer have a Disraelian feel to it. This most Gladstonian of chancellors would bring a Gladstonian coolness to relations with the monarch, and there would probably be a gentle prodding towards more economy and prudence in the royal household. But although friends say that Brown is an instinctive republican, you would see no move against the monarchy itself. Brown knows that, for millions of subjects, the Crown is a mighty part of the bond that binds the UK, and the Union is at the heart of Brown’s politics and his chances of getting to the top job.

When I asked a Brownite former minister about Brown’s hinterland, he waxed lyrical about the great man’s passion for sport, especially football. “He’s fanatical, passionate about Scotland football internationals . . . err, hang on – I don’t want you to use that.” The dutiful friend then gave an identical answer with only the reference to Scots partisanship removed. Convention dictates, post-devolution, that Scots can only take the jobs where Westminster still has reserve powers, such as the Treasury, Social Security and the Foreign Office. Might the English come to see the premiership itself as an English preserve?

And the other great unknown is Europe. Has Brown been playing down his own Europhilia solely to keep it off the election agenda, or is he repositioning himself for personal advantage? Does Brown think that the euro isn’t showing much sign of being a club worth joining? Or – this is the most popular notion among ministerial colleagues – has he come to see Europe as an extension of his Cabinet colleagues, just another threat to his personal power?

The biggest differences between the old and the new regimes would be cultural and personal. Even Brown’s critics in government admit that he has wielded unprecedented influence across Whitehall, with phenomenal effect. But, they argue, he has done so without an ounce of charm.

In the end, colleagues and possibly even the country might come to sympathise with Brown’s old girlfriend, Princess Margarita of Romania: “With Gordon, it was always politics, politics, politics . . . and I needed nurturing.”

Gary Gibbon is political correspondent for Channel 4 News

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