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Sunday 1 July 2007

He won't have Blair to blame any more

'TONY out, Gordon in, blah blah whatever', announced the Daily Star in Britain on Thursday in the small space on the front page that could be spared from the lead story: 'B Bro ruined my marriage'.

The Star also thoughtfully offered readers a 'Blair sick bag' as a souvenir - too late for Gordon Brown, who during Tony Blair's farewell performance in the Commons the previous day looked as if he could have done with one.

What has been spun over and over again as "the stable and orderly transition of leadership" from Blair to Brown was indeed an achievement for both of them, considering these friends-turned-rivals have been driving each other crazy for years, while lacking the courage to fight to the death.

When the Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in May 1994, Brown assumed that the job was his, but even though he respected Brown as his intellectual superior, Blair knew he was more popular.

Typically, Blair didn't want confrontation and Brown was cautious and timid, so a deal was done: in exchange for a free hand with economic policy and the promise that Blair would hand over to him within a few years, Brown agreed not to stand.

This was a bad decision: a contest would have been bloody but ultimately cleansing. Blair would still have become leader, but Brown would have been unable to delude himself, as he has done for 13 years, that in the name of party unity he had held back from an election he would have won and that the leadership that Blair kept denying him was rightfully his.

A WEEK IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS: Brown and Blair, above, at the Labour leadership conference in Manchester last Sunday; Britain's new PM and his wife, Sarah, top, right, arrive at their new home, 10 Downing Street; below, right, the old PM, Tony Blair, and his wife, Cherie, bid farewell to Number 1

They drifted into a poisonous relationship, plotting, scheming and spinning against each other but - in Pope's great line - "willing to wound but yet afraid to strike".

A formidably intelligent, single-minded, master of detail and dedicated social engineer, Brown extended the power of the Treasury over all of Whitehall, blocked many of Blair's attempts to reform the public services and ran his huge fiefdom with what Lord Turnbull, Brown's permanent secretary for four years, later described as "sheer Stalinist ruthlessness" and "complete contempt" for his political colleagues (which extended to refusing to discuss his budgets with the prime minister and frequently screaming abuse at him).

A brave Labour MP (who will pay for it), told Brown recently that as prime minister he would have a big advantage over Blair: "You won't have Gordon Brown to deal with."

Brown hates being challenged and - unlike his predecessors - avoided programmes that involved the public. On the rare occasions he appeared on the Today programme, he floored interviewers with a remorseless stream of statistics and aggression (it is not for nothing that Blair called him "the big clunking fist").

He also acquired several years ago the nickname 'Macavity Brown', after the TS Eliot cat ("And when you reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!"), for when awkward questions were asked about Treasury failures, Brown would nominate some wretched junior Treasury minister to give the answers.

Even had Blair not wanted to hang on to power because he loved the limelight, he genuinely thought Brown temperamentally incapable of being prime minister, so he enraged his brooding, resentful neighbour further by postponing his departure over and over again and covertly seeking another successor.

By March 2005, Blair had decided to sack his over-mighty Chancellor after the May election and break up the Treasury. Only days later, as the campaign - from which Brown had been frozen out - faltered, he realised he needed Brown's help to win the election: the price was a promise that Brown would keep his job and Blair would resign within a year or so.

After the Labour victory, Blair ratted again and announced he would serve a full term. That September, with Brown's connivance, 17 Labour MPs wrote to Blair urging him to quit. The most senior of them, Tom Watson, a junior minister, who resigned, was branded "discourteous, disloyal and wrong" by Blair. He has just been given a government appointment by Brown, along with two of the other rebels.

That revolt forced Blair to bring forward his departure. Desperate attempts by Blairites to find a candidate to challenge Brown failed mainly because they and their potential backers were made aware by the Chancellor's camp that to do so would be to invite political ruin. And so the United Kingdom, over the past six weeks or so, has seen Brown stomping the country on a campaign trail with no contest, while Blair travelled the world saying a long goodbye.

Although his impressive wife, Sarah, has cleaned up her husband's appearance, got him a decent haircut and had his teeth fixed, Brown retains the solid, square, glowering persona that was so evident last Wednesday during most of Blair's brilliant Commons performance.

Brown learned later that - to the dismay of the Foreign Office - Blair was off to take up a job as Middle East envoy of the US, EU, UN and Russia. That was classic Blair. This intellectual flibbertigibbet was so desperate to stay in the limelight that he ignored all the good advice about taking time to consider his options, took a job that has much less to it than he had hoped and for which, anyway, in view of his role in Iraq, he is completely unsuitable.

Meanwhile, back in Downing Street, Brown, who had been working out his strategy for weeks, made a brief speech in which - by using the word 'change' eight times - he made it clear that he was jettisoning the Blair legacy (Macavity apparently hasn't been around these past 10 years), and constructing a government "of all the talents".

In a week when Quentin Davies, a Tory malcontent, crossed the floor, the appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of Shaun ('Two Butlers') Woodward, who did so eight years ago, was a signal that defectors would be rewarded. (Woodward's other advantage was that he waived his salary, thus allowing Brown to have a Cabinet of 22 although there is a cap of 21 on salaries.)

However, although he's acquired a few outsiders as junior ministers or advisers and has promoted a few Blairites and some young blood, what is most noticeable about Brown's Cabinet is that doesn't contain anyone who'll stand up to him: John Reid and Charles Clark are outside the tent, plotting. What is also noteworthy is that the London bombs have swept the results of all his careful planning off the front page.

Brown will have to get used to being derailed by events he could once leave to Blair. Britain's new Prime Minister - who is no multi-tasker - is now faced with a range of enormous problems. Iraq, murderous domestic Islamists, the insistent clamour for a referendum on the EU constitution AKA treaty, horrendous floods, a ruthless and clever enemy as Scottish First Minister and the likelihood of prosecutions in the cash-for-honours scandal are just a few to be going on with. This tribal, dictatorial, insecure man who must always get his way and trusts only his inner circle, now tells us he will be a keen listener who will govern by consensus. Blah, blah, Gordon. Whatever.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards