Brown plays a hidden hand

5 Jan 07
DAVID LIPSEY | Remember Christmas? No, not last week’s (I hope you had a good one) but the ones when you were a child: an exciting pile of lumpy presents, piled round the tree, while you guessed at their likely content.

Remember Christmas? No, not last week’s (I hope you had a good one) but the ones when you were a child: an exciting pile of lumpy presents, piled round the tree, while you guessed at their likely content.

Looking forward to Gordon Brown’s premiership is a bit like this. As Tony Blair has become addled — stuffing leaking out here, an eye loose there — so a new teddy seems an enticing prospect. But will he truly be the object of everyone’s affections?

Or, rather like a new wife, will he soon have the same defects as the old one with a few added ones of his own?

The shape of a Brown premiership is hard to detect. This is partly because, whatever else the man is, he is a superbly controlled politician. His political speeches, endlessly worked over, appear to have a philosophical underpinning, but they are rarely without nuance and are usually short on specifics.

He is careful to keep himself to himself. Parliamentary colleagues complain that it is difficult to get an appointment with the great man, who rather works by sending his close colleagues out as his ambassadors. So few will have his private words to quote against him, let alone his public views.

He will on occasion let others set out views that are taken as his views. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander: it must be a mixed blessing for such brilliant young politicians that they cannot speak without being reported as if they were their master’s voice.

You don’t even have to be an MP to qualify. For example, Neal Lawson, a radical constitutional reformer, offers Brown advice on this subject. It is partly on his testimony that it is believed that Brown cannot wait to (for example) introduce an elected House of Lords. We shall see.

Brown’s inscrutability is a matter of choice. Although he is determined that his premiership will be very different from Blair’s, he is equally determined not to show his hand too clearly.

Indeed, his more recent tactic has been to suggest that he agrees with the present prime minister on everything (replacing Trident, for example) on the grounds that the more Blair can be convinced that Brown is his clone, the sooner he will leave Number 10.

What has been less noticed, however, is that the same choice — inscrutability over transparency — has been made by practically every would-be prime minister before he got the job.

Take, for example, John Major. Famously, when he took over from Lady Thatcher the Cabinet felt like the liberated prisoners in Beethoven’s Fidelio, but what did he stand for? When he left office six years later, we were little the wiser.

Margaret Thatcher was no Thatcherite before she became prime minister. Harold Macmillan had been a supporter of Suez, the disaster that got him the job. Harold Wilson ran on a man-of-the people ticket, decidedly short of content.

Churchill had been in two parties and his political views on domestic matters spanned a spectrum. In fact, of the post-war premiers, perhaps only Blair has governed just as he said he would — New Labour in opposition, New Labour in government — though where that has got him remains controversial.

This lack of predictability is so singular that it deserves analysis. There are good reasons for it.

The first is that most politicians do not, in fact, have a strong philosophy or fixed views. This does not mean that they are unprincipled, exactly, but rather that they find themselves in a profession where principles are a career hazard.

Think how long it has taken, say, Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, to throw off the image of a wild Lefty that she briefly acquired in the early 1980s.

The second is that the capacity of prime ministers to shape events is limited.

They are leaders of a medium-sized power in a world dominated by globalisation and big international companies. They are blown about by forces outwith their control; in particular today a press that is powerful, ignorant and vicious. They have their party to consider as well as their country.

And anyway, beyond all this, they are largely the creature of the electorate, who have either voted them in or will get the chance to vote them out.

In these circumstances, prime ministers can provide a narrative of what is happening. They can make individual important decisions.

At the broad margin they can affect the direction of his country. But they are not dictators; and most leave office convinced that there are grave limits on what they could achieve.

It will be astonishing indeed if Brown, taking over as he will a government long in office, makes a difference to British politics on the scale of his own ambitions, and those of his supporters.

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