Gordon Brown has taken a critical step to becoming Britain’s prime minister. For years, Mr Brown – the dour 55-year-old Scot who is finance minister – has never disguised his burning desire to succeed Tony Blair as leader of the ruling Labour party. This week, Mr Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, finally got something he long sought: a public assurance from Mr Blair that he will quit Downing Street by next May.
Mr Blair’s assurance came in one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent British politics. It is a week that has badly – probably fatally – damaged Mr Blair. The prime minister had wanted to keep his departure plans vague. But after a revolt by Labour MPs, he was finally forced to surrender a rough timetable for his departure.
Perhaps more remarkably, the week’s events have also damaged Mr Brown. For years, he has been a consummate political operator, the dead certain successor to Mr Blair. He almost certainly still is. But on Friday Charles Clarke, a former interior minister, voiced the suspicion of many Labour MPs that Mr Blair has been the victim of a grubby coup orchestrated by his finance minister. Mr Clarke attacked Mr Brown’s behaviour this week as “absolutely stupid” – adding that he must now “prove his fitness” to succeed Mr Blair.
People outside the UK will probably be more struck by Mr Blair’s political demise than Mr Brown’s ascent. Even after a decade in office, Mr Blair remains one of the most arresting figures on the international stage. In the US, he enjoys mythical status as the sole sure ally of President George W. Bush in the war on terror. In Europe, Mr Blair is regarded as the one person who has firmly shifted a party of the left to the centre ground. By contrast, Mr Brown – outside international financial circles – enjoys none of this allure.
Yet this is to underestimate Gordon Brown. He deserves no less credit than Mr Blair for founding “New Labour” and making it a powerful electoral machine. Even more significant, Mr Brown is the architect of the government’s economic success – implementing reforms that have brought a decade of uninterrupted growth, low unemployment and interest rates. This, above all, is why his bid to succeed Mr Blair is unstoppable.
Even so, within Labour there is a nagging doubt, an ambivalence, about what kind of leader Mr Brown would be. Mr Clarke on Friday became the first senior politician to voice publicly what the ambivalence is about: Mr Brown’s dark side, his sullen temperament. “Part of the problem,” said Mr Clarke, “is that he lacks confidence. He is nervous. That could all change when the burden of waiting for the job is lifted and I think it probably will. But the problem is, nobody really knows.”
As politicians – indeed as human beings – it is hard to imagine two people more unlike each other than Mr Blair and Mr Brown. The current prime minister is intuitive, a charmer, one who connects with fellow politicians and the electorate. Mr Brown is broody, deliberative, an academic manqué whose powerful charm in private is not felt by the wider public.
Their working styles are different, too. Mr Blair acts on instinct, he has intimations about events. He knew within minutes of the September 11 attacks that the world had been gripped by a powerful new form of terrorism. Mr Brown, by contrast, rarely takes a big decision without painstaking study and reflection. Sometimes, this can be an advantage. But some wonder how well he would make the shift to prime minister, where the incumbent must respond daily to random events.
Above all – and this is central to the impending handover – Mr Brown appears to many Britons to be more left-leaning than Mr Blair. The prime minister has long been seen as a Conservative in disguise (“Tory Blair”). At home, he has overhauled Britain’s health and education system, introducing choice for consumers. Mr Brown, by contrast, is seen as a more traditional Labour man, close to trade union leaders and wedded to big government and state intervention.
For Britain’s Conservatives, now resurgent under David Cameron, this is the core attack on Mr Brown. Mr Cameron argues that once Mr Blair has gone, he – the Conservative leader – will become Mr Blair’s rightful heir. Mr Brown, meanwhile, will marginalise Labour and take it back to the left. This argument is too crude, however. At home, Mr Brown resents the suggestion that he is not a reformer or moderniser. He has faced down union demands for big public sector wage rises. He is deeply committed to the promotion of business and enterprise. What is still uncertain is whether he will have anything like Mr Blair’s zeal to entrench choice and diversity in state hospitals and schools.
“He has to do this and I think he will,” says a dispassionate observer. “The moment he veers away from the reforms Blair has sought to implement, Cameron will press home the argument that the Tories are Blair’s heirs.”
On international policy, too, Mr Brown might not signal as much of a change as some believe. Mr Blair has developed a powerful political relationship with the White House, believing the UK can have no influence unless it hugs America close. Mr Brown will not get so close to Mr Bush in the final stages of his presidency. Yet Mr Brown is intellectually far more fascinated than Mr Blair has ever been by American politics, enterprise and culture – ensuring these have a deep influence on his policy.
On Europe, the two men’s instincts are clearly different. Mr Brown’s dominant concern has been with Europe’s structural economic problems and rigid labour markets. This makes him far more sceptical than Mr Blair about attempts to deepen political integration. But Mr Brown is aware, too, that Britain’s Conservatives undermine their own credibility by indulging in visceral Europhobia. So he will want to underscore Conservative extremism by forging close links with European leaders.
Can Mr Brown possibly be stopped from winning power? Mr Clarke’s attack has thrown a sharp spotlight on whether Mr Brown will be challenged in next year’s leadership election. A handful of leading Labour figures close to Mr Blair loathe Mr Brown and share concerns about his character and politics. They may yet organise a challenge.
Yet Mr Brown should manage to head this off. He has bided his time as the leader-in-waiting for so long that he is unlikely to make a mistake now. The broad mass of the Labour party – the trade unions, the young generation of cabinet ministers – is firmly behind him. Yet he still has some work to do – to prove he really does have some of Tony Blair’s versatility and humanity.