Winning the premiership with style

17 Feb 06
PETER RIDDELL | Every conversation with a minister, senior civil servant or special adviser now turns inevitably - and usually quickly - to the question of what type of prime minister Gordon Brown will be.

Every conversation with a minister, senior civil servant or special adviser now turns inevitably - and usually quickly - to the question of what type of prime minister Gordon Brown will be.

It is no longer, if it ever were, a question of ‘whether’ he succeeds Tony Blair, and the ‘when’ has narrowed to summer or autumn next year. More interesting now is the ‘what’.

Brown has started to give the answer in a series of speeches and interviews. We have already had Britishness and national security, and are promised education, transport, science and technology, work-life balance and foreign relations.

These speeches hardly amount to a job application, since he looks as certain to become PM as Chelsea does to win the Premiership: Labour’s defeat in the Dunfermline by-election being the equivalent of Chelsea’s recent loss to Middlesbrough — a temporary reverse, but no more.

The speeches reinforce the sense of inevitability about Brown’s succession, as well as, possibly, bringing it closer.

There has been talk of a dual premiership. But that is misleading. Power has always been shared between Blair and Brown. There have been Tony’s areas, such as schools, health reform, antisocial behaviour, defence, and Gordon’s: the economy, welfare-to-work, trade and industry, and international development.

Moreover, Blair is content for Brown to make his speeches. The prime minister has repeatedly acknowledged that Brown will take over from him, even if many Blairites have doubts about how well he will do in the top job.

So Blair accepts that there is bound to be some sort of transition. In that sense, encouraging Brown to make speeches represents a positive use of his energy, in contrast to recent tensions between the Blair and Brown camps. Nonetheless, the current position is unstable.

The Brown camp is divided about how quickly they want their man to take over as PM. Some see an advantage in Blair remaining in Downing Street while tough decisions are taken on public spending, civil nuclear power, etc, and while there are still a large number of British troops in Iraq.

The Brown camp is also trying to transform the Iron Chancellor, Mr Prudence, into an appealing prime minister-in-waiting. The speeches are intended to show that he is not just a capable chancellor, but has a much broader range of interests.

In reality, Brown is a big-picture man, a strategist who thinks deeply about global problems. Creating an impression of breadth should not be too hard. This partly would knock on the head the worries, and jibes, of some Blairites, as well as the Tory leadership, that Brown is not a true reformer.

Hence, Brown is keen to go beyond the current Schools Bill to urge more reform, particularly more personalised learning to help less academic 14-to 19-year olds.

These speeches can only give glimpses of how a Brown premiership might differ from a Blair one.

That is partly because Brown does not want to be accused of implicitly criticising Blair. So, in his national security speech, he sounded as strong as Blair on the need for a tough response to the terrorist threat and on the case for identity cards. Moreover, since Brown has already been the architect of many of the government’s policies, he is hardly in a position to set out radically new ground now.

But differences of emphasis have emerged: for instance, Brown has a greater interest in constitutional reform than Blair. A Brown premiership would probably lead to a revived attempt at longer-term reform of the House of Lords as well as a more formal role for Parliament in approving the dispatch of British troops overseas.

But, in many ways, these policy ideas are less interesting than how Brown would govern. He has a reputation for being as much of a ‘control freak’ as Blair, if not more.

He likes working with a small group of trusted advisers. There is a tension between his public support for greater pluralism and his personal style as chancellor. Being prime minister is very different from being chancellor. You are much more a public spokesman for the government, smiling and greeting, with actor-like skills at which Blair excels. Can Brown adapt? Can he relax? These questions of style matter as much as those of substance.

Moreover, while preparing for the premiership, Brown cannot afford to neglect his day job. He has to ensure that the economy remains stable and resumes steady growth. There are big question marks now about the long-term state of public finances and Britain’s productivity record.

So, however much Brown wants to focus attention on the future, the present remains crucial. The coming Budget will be important not only to his reputation as chancellor but also to his success as prime minister.

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