He’s behind you

15 Sep 06
PETER WILBY | Amid all the speculation about what a Gordon Brown-led government might be like — who will be in, who will be out, what policies will he adopt — one question remains unaddressed.

Amid all the speculation about what a Gordon Brown-led government might be like — who will be in, who will be out, what policies will he adopt — one question remains unaddressed.

Yet it probably matters more to Brown’s fate (assuming he is indeed the successor), and ultimately Labour’s, than any other. What will Tony Blair do once he is out of office?

Some say he will return to the law, though he wasn’t an outstanding barrister. Others suggest a role in the UN or the European Union. That, too, seems unlikely, given his support for the US in the Middle East.

Another option, it is said, is the board of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, alongside José María Aznar, the former Spanish premier and fellow member of the coalition of the very willing.

Or perhaps he will just concentrate on writing his memoirs — a £4m deal with Random House plus serialisation in the Sunday Times is rumoured — while also touring the lucrative US lecture circuit?

But all that is less important than whether Blair will continue to make speeches, give interviews and write articles about contemporary politics, and whether he will continue as an MP. Will he snipe at Brown from retirement and continue the blood feud of the past nine years?

In Britain, a change of prime minister, even when there’s no change of party, is now rather like a change of US president. It’s not only the Cabinet that changes, but also an army of advisers, pollsters, spin doctors and general hangers-on.

Many of the advisers closest to Blair, such as Geoff Mulgan, Anji Hunter and Sally Morgan, have already left what, since 2003, has evidently been a slowly sinking ship. Matthew Taylor, chief adviser on strategy, is among those who will leave this autumn. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff and the most prominent aide to survive from 1997, is unlikely to continue after the transition to Brown.

Others, however, such as Ben Wegg-Prosser, the former Peter Mandelson aide who is now head of the Downing Street Strategic Communications Unit, Philip Gould, the pollster, and Alastair Campbell — in power, but not in office, to invert Norman Lamont’s description of John Major — apparently harbour hopes of working under Brown.

Much will depend on how Brown treats these people, and how he treats incumbent Cabinet ministers, of whom more than half, according to one forecast, could be out. The potential for disgruntlement and a sense of dispossession among Blair’s courtiers, elected and non-elected, is clearly considerable.

That isn’t the case in the US, where presidents are almost always selected by their party to run for a second term and usually get it. Ministers and staff expect eight years in the sun, but nothing more.

In any case, former US presidents have a grander status than former British PMs. They are formally described as, for example, ‘Former President Jimmy Carter’, not ‘Mr Jimmy Carter’. But they know there cannot be a second coming.

British premiers, by contrast, often leave office (or, if they have lost an election, the party leadership) with reluctance, and with hopes that the nation will beg them to return in some future hour of need. Blair, despite his promise not to seek a fourth term, is clearly going reluctantly and, equally clearly, is prone to fantasies about his historical destiny. That destiny, he might well feel, is unfulfilled. And there will be plenty of former associates who might agree.

The obvious analogies are with Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Heath never disguised his contempt for his successor, but lacked the personal appeal to do her serious damage. Thatcher rarely spoke openly about John Major, but her fanatical followers spread poison on her behalf, to his and the Tory government’s detriment.

Blair, at 53 or 54 (depending on the date of his resignation), will be younger than either Heath or Thatcher when they stepped down. Given his political skills — this is a man who survived taking the country into a highly unpopular and, as it proved, disastrous war — he is a greater potential danger than either.

The worldly-wise will argue that Blair is too discredited a figure to carry any weight in future, that his Labour following is too shallow, that his political philosophy is too elusive, that the British despise bad losers. I am not so sure. Blair would be clever enough to avoid a full, open assault, but there are other ways of undermining your successor.

He and Brown were once friends and close allies, and New Labour was their joint enterprise. Coleridge wrote that ‘to be wroth with one we love doth work like madness in the brain’. Remember the ‘demon eyes’ picture that the Tories used to show us? If I were Brown, I would be afraid, very afraid.

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