Britain under Brown

After 10 years in office, Tony Blair is handing over power to Gordon Brown. Mr Brown has given the first indications of the shape of his new cabinet and how he intends to overhaul Whitehall, declaring his determination to meet “the challenge of change”.

Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, argues that ”Blair has changed the character of British politics over the past decade”.

Will Mr Brown’s policies differ to his predecessor? Do you think Mr Brown will make a good prime minister? How will British politics change under the former chancellor? Will Mr Brown stay on the same centre ground as Blair and can he can he win the next general election?

Philip Stephens will answer your questions on Britain under Brown in a live online debate today from 3-4pm BST.


Do you think British business will welcome Brown’s premiership?
Rachell Durnhill, London

Philip Stephens: I think British business will be watching very closely to see whether Brown adds substance to his pro-business rhetoric. It is one thing to set up a council of business leaders to advise the government - another to meet the calls of business for less regulation, lower corporate taxes and less interference from Whitehall.


What will Gordon Brown do to counter inflation if the strength of the pound weakens?
Tony Makata, Manchester

Philip Stephens: He will leave it the Bank of England - if a falling pound threatens an upsurge in inflation we can expect the MPC to raise interest rates.


If Brown really does ”want to listen to the people”, surely he should listen to the majority of the English electorate that want an English parliament. If Brown is still in sincere and “listening” mode he could then go on to dismantle the costly and unwanted, New Labour imposition of the regionalisation of our country.
David G. Rand, UK

Philip Stephens: I would be surprised if people wanted yet another layer of politicians. I suspect you are arguing for the break-up of the Union with Scotland, and there I would disagree.


Why do you think that the media have reported the idea that Gordon Brown is going to spin less, when everyone is aware that Brown was even more aggressive in his attempts to control the media when he was chancellor? Are the media afraid of Brown?
Alex R, London

Philip Stephens: My guess is that the media are giving him the benefit of the doubt. You are right about Mr Brown’s previous record. He says he has changed. For now the media is taking that at face value. That in turn will change if the new prime minister does not live up to the new commitments.


Do you think Brown will raise or reduce taxes?
Stuart Snell, Guildford, UK.

Philip Stephens: I would expect little change before the next election - the spending round in the autumn is likely to confirm the tough overall settlement outlined in this year’s Budget so I would expect Mr Brown to want to keep the tax burden fairly steady before he goes to the polls. That would not preclude, though, some adjustment in the distribution of taxes nor indeed one or two modest ”stealth” taxes.


In your opinion, will Brown make a better prime minister than Blair and if so, why?
Gem

Philip Stephens: That is too big a question to answer less than a week into his premiership. I would be surprised if he had the same impact on Britain’s political life as Blair but whether that means he will be better or worse I am not sure. Let’s wait until we have seen more of him in No 10.


Do you think Brown’s policies will differ drastically to his predecessor or will he continue to occupy the centre ground? And will he walk the next election considering there is no tangible opposition, given that Cameron’s Tories are an extension of New Labour?
Russell Nosworthy, London

Philip Stephens: There is a saying that politicians seeking to win elections hug the centre ground - and once they have won them they seek to move that ground. I suspect this is Brown’s strategy, though I wonder whether even before the election he will be as committed as was Blair to public service reform. As for the Conservatives, I think the same strategy probably applies, though in Cameron’s case he would seek to move the ground rightwards in government.


How do you think Gordon Brown will stack up against the leader of the opposition Conservatives, David Cameron?
Thomas Bergman, Arkansas, US

Philip Stephens: It will be an interesting contest. Brown has experience, seriousness and a forceful personality on his side - Blair referred to him as the ”clunking fist”. Cameron has yet to prove himself a substantial figure but has a natural talent for communications and the argument for change on his side.

Watch prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons this coming Wednesday for early signs of how the contest will shape up.


What would be Gordon Brown’s policy on immigration especially after the bomb scare?
Madhav Desai, London

Philip Stephens: I don’t expect much of a change - Brown has backed controlled immigration on a fairly significant scale. What might change his mind is an economic slowdown. He might also want to sound tougher ahead of a general election.


Will Britain’s opposition to adopting the Euro be strengthened now that Gordon Brown has become PM?
Donal Hurley

Philip Stephens: There is no prospect of Britain joining the Euro as long as Brown as in No 10!


What is the stand of Brown on the Iraq war? Will Gordon Brown send home the British army in Iraq?
Jonathan P.M Kigali, Rwanda

Philip Stephens: Gordon Brown supported the Iraq war as a member of the cabinet at the time and has never resiled from that position. What he is trying to do is signal that he is more willing to acknowledge the mistakes that were made and learn the lessons. Hence the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown, the former deputy secretary general of the UN and strong critic of the war, as a minister at the foreign office.

Brown will continue the drawdown of troops begun by Blair earlier this year and I would be surprised if there is more than a token British force in Basra by this time next year. But Brown will also seek to avoid any open breach with Washington.


How important is the continued special relationship between Britain and the United States to Brown, and do you believe that he will reach out to Bush in the way that Blair did, in order to maintain the close ties between the two countries?
Michael Harris, Melbourne, Australia

Philip Stephens: Brown will seek to maintain a strong strategic relationship with the US - he has signalled that by backing the modernisation in cooperation with Washington of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system. The security/defence/intelligence relationship with the US is seen as two important to jettison.

That said, I would be surprised if he did not recalibrate the relationship to give himself more room to disagree with the White House in public - much as Germany’s Angela Merkel has done. On the other hand Brown has not shown himself a great enthusiast for an alternative set of closer alliances with Britain’s European partners.


If the SNP succeeded in holding a referendum on Scottish independence and won the vote, how would a Labour government under Brown’s leadership react?
Pano Tagaroulias, Newcastle, Australia

Philip Stephens: I don’t think we will have a referendum any time soon and the balance of opinion in Scotland remains against independent in spite of the SNP’s recent electoral success. But if the people of Scotland do ever vote for independence then the government of the day at Westminster will have no choice than but to accept that verdict and begin talks on separation.


Are the changes in the character of UK government initiated by Blair in respect of Cabinet (informality), Civil Service and Parliament (lack of debate on key issues) irreversible and if not should we desire a return to a more structured method of government?
Dick Marshall, West Midlands

Philip Stephens: My view is that too much is made of Blair’s sofa style of government. All modern prime ministers feel they need more power at the centre. Brown has changed things, notionally transferring some of the authority of No 10 to the cabinet office. But at the same time he has strengthened No 10’s control over the cabinet office itself - effectively annexing it - so the net effect is not that different. Once again we are talking style and presentation more than real change.


Gordon Brown agreed with everything Tony Blair did. So why does he assume the British people want him? Why are we not having a general election?
N McGregor, Perth, Scotland

Philip Stephens: I am not sure he agreed with absolutely everything, but you are right in suggesting that we are unlikely to see a decisive break with the Blair years in terms of the substance (as opposed to the tone) of policy. But Brown will be governing at a different time and the world does change. As for a general election, there is no such constitutional requirement, cf the transfers of power from Thatcher to Major or from Wilson to Callaghan. That’s not to say an election would not be a good idea.


Is Brown spinning when we hear he will be more about substance than spin? How does that claim stand up to scrutiny given the FT discovery that he quietly slashed a third of the English investment budget from his immediate priority, the NHS.
Richard Turner, Surrey

Philip Stephens: A good point. When politicians say they are echewing ”spin” we have a right to be suspicious. I think this is more about presentation than substance, though there have been one or two small changes to the way the No 10 operation works. The attempt to conceal the NHS spending cut really was the Treasury at its worst


Do you believe that Gordon Brown and his new Secretary for Culture will take a more enlightened approach to the long-running issue of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece rather than simply toting the British Museum’s line as Tony Blair did?
George Vardas, Australia

My guess is that you should not expect any change - but it is only a guess


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