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Sunday 16 January 2005

Labour gets a bad case of the TB/GBs

'YOUR Excellency, the Finance Minister, we express our gratitude and happiness to you - our hopes are raised by your visit here" sang 40 little Kenyan girls in blue pinafore dresses last week. Congratulating them on their "joy and ambition for the future", Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the British Exchequer, went off with smiles wreathed all over his normally dour face. 

Brown - notoriously at Westminster a man who won't even change his clothes in the gym - was tieless and had two shirt buttons undone. African warmth and informality can make even the most introverted, awkward visitors happy and carefree. 

Until then, Brown had had a dreadful week. The cooperation he and his friends had given to Robert Peston, author of Brown's Britain, had caused ructions in the Labour Party. Last Monday, MPs had savaged both Brown and Tony Blair - the other half of a loveless partnership - to their faces for maintaining a feud that risked party unity and victory in the general election expected to be called for May. 

A questioner asked if Brown had been quoted accurately as having said to Blair, "There is nothing you could say to me now that I could ever believe". Being as honest and stubborn as he is angry, Brown would not deny he had. He thinks Blair promised last year to step aside as Labour leader so Brown could have the job he believes is rightfully his, but ratted for the third time. Blair - whose whole career has been founded on his ability to tell people what they want to hear and then forget he's done so - disagrees. 

Blair's revenge came the following morning, when Brown was forced to pose with Alan Milburn, the thuggish Blairite who has not only supplanted Brown as election strategy chief, but is seen as Downing Street's candidate to replace Blair when he goes off to make his fortune in four years or so. 

As an exercise in media management it was a colossal failure. Brown could manage only a few fixed and glassy smiles and most newspaper accounts played the event for laughs. But by forcing Brown to go through such a charade, Blair had shown that after years of appeasing his Chancellor, he was now determined to show who was boss. 

The same day, the press was told that on Thursday, by which time Brown would be in Africa, Blair would be making a speech on the theme of how the party's election manifesto would be "unremittingly New Labour", ie. Blairite. 

And boy, did the speech live up to expectations. While Brown was praised "as the most successful British post-war Chancellor", Blair's main message will have caused an eruption of rage in an African hotel-room. Brown is dubious about the role of the market in public services, yet Blair announced that if they have a third term, a New Labour government will "drive through market-based reforms in the health-service". Brown likes raising and spending taxes, but Blair, sounding more Thatcherite by the minute, is promising "prosperity for all" - including the rich - and "choice" in public services - a concept anathema to the control-freak Brown. 

But it is not the policy differences that have created such a poisonous relationship in Downing Street. True, Blair is a natural economic conservative, while Brown is a socialist. True, Blair is a starry-eyed Europhile and Brown a beady-eyed Eurosceptic. And true, Brown has more respect than Blair for democratic institutions. 

But more than anything else, what has divided them are the cultural differences expressed in their personalities. 

Think nationalist and unionist. Blair is personable, charming and wants to be loved: Brown is stern, moody and principled. Blair likes nuance and fudging and ambiguity (look at the peace process): Brown is a straight talker who reads the lines rather than between them. Blair is a glib generalist: Brown is a master of detail. 

Blair is a Catholic in all but name, though he follows a secular agenda on homosexuality, abortion and most social issues: Brown is a Presbyterian son of the manse. Blair loves the world of glamorous celebrities: Brown likes to watch football with old mates. Brown takes his holiday every year in Cape Cod, reading Treasury papers: Blair tours the houses of rich friends. And above all, Blair is an actor: Brown can be only his difficult self. 

The two have coexisted uneasily in office since 1997 running two separate fiefdoms. At first, this suited them. Blair has no interest in or aptitude for economics so, unlike Margaret Thatcher, he did not want to be his own Chancellor. But what Brown sees as Blair's betrayal and Blair sees as Brown's disloyalty have created an ever-widening fault-line. 

Obsessively, Brown spread the Treasury's tentacles all over the spending departments and Blair retaliated by getting rid of Brownites from the Cabinet whenever he had an opportunity. 

The rows and machinations and plots and backbiting (nicknamed the TB/GBs) have provided a continuing soap opera that rivets the Westminster village and requires the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, to operate as a referee/relationship counsellor. 

'GORDON wants to be inside the tent, but pissing in", is how one Cabinet minister put it to a journalist recently. It's all so public now that the senior Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody spoke for almost all her party when she drawled on the radio last week: "If you want a bit of advice, darlings, grow up". 

Most observers believed that long ago, Brown should have shafted Blair or Blair should have sacked Brown. But oddly enough, the two men share a characteristic that has stopped them taking decisive action. 

As Pope put it, they are: 

"Willing to wound, and yet 

afraid to strike; 

Just hint a fault, and hesitate 


So, although Brown frequently screams at Blair, neither has thrown down the gauntlet. 

Instead, with the help of colleagues and cronies and friendly journalists, they've wounded each other. Inspired by ammunition from both camps, millions of words have been written in articles and books about their epic struggle. 

In the last few weeks, knowing that Brown's Britain was about to come out, Blair and his friends have been briefing the sympathetic Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley for a counterblast. The rivalry has now gone global. It had been a feature of their partnership that Brown went abroad on business only to interminable meetings of finance ministers, while Blair flew in all directions to be pictured with world leaders or look macho in war zones. 

But recently Brown has developed international ambitions and has announced what he calls a 'Marshall Plan' for the developing world, which he is now announcing to ecstatic audiences in Africa (a dubious strategy for a continent whose dictators have stolen billions of aid money and which, more than anything, needs responsible government and free trade). 

Blair will not appreciate this development. On Friday, Brown was implicitly challenging Blair - who is notoriously contemptuous of tradition - by praising Britishness, while at home Milburn was aggressively thumping the Thatcherite drum. 

Their party is fed up and the public are fed up. The goal is open for the Tories. If only they had a football. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards