For the past 10 years, Tony Blair has been one of the most slick performers on the world stage, dazzling with his oratorical power, with his political showmanship. Now, after he ceded power to Gordon Brown this week, Britain has moved to a premiership that is set to be grey, clunking but – if truth also be told – reassuringly down to earth.
There was a moment in this historic week of political transition that epitomised just how different the Blair and Brown regimes may turn out to be. It came at about 3pm on Wednesday afternoon when the new premier was driven into Number 10 Downing Street after being asked to form a government by the Queen.
Ten years ago, when Mr Blair arrived in the shadow of his first election victory, he confronted flag-waving crowds of Labour supporters, many of them marshalled into the street in a well-orchestrated operation by party officials. Mr Blair spoke confidently to the crowds. He stood on the doorstep of Number 10 surrounded by wife and children.
This week, Mr Brown’s arrival at the seat of power was altogether more subdued. The new prime minister and his wife were greeted only by reporters and photographers. Party supporters and the Brown children were all kept out of sight. Before addressing the media, Mr Brown even did something that the exquisitely polished Mr Blair would never do: he tapped the microphone nervously to make sure it worked.
In truth, this subdued style is what the British want now – and Mr Brown knows it. After the allied failure in Iraq, the debacle over weapons of mass destruction, the string of sleaze scandals that hit Mr Blair, the British want humility not hubris from their prime minister. Parts of the press – especially the international media – will not like it. But after a decade of Blairism, political sobriety is the order of the day in Britain.
Yet Mr Brown has shown that he does not just want to draw a contrast with Mr Blair. He wants to create an impression of change on a range of fronts. The great danger he faces is that the opposition Conservative party will argue that his arrival at Number 10 a decade after Labour won power is the final chapter in this government’s story – and that the next election must be “time for a change”. Mr Brown has therefore sought to argue that it is his own arrival at Number 10 that marks the big change. He has done three things to suggest a fresh chapter is opening.
First, Mr Brown has tried to blunt the long-standing attack that he is a “Stalinist” control freak who relies only on cronies. Mr Brown has formed his cabinet by reaching out to Labour MPs – John Hutton, for example – who were once sworn enemies. on Friday, he hammered home this “big tent” strategy by giving four ministerial jobs to people outside politics.
Second, he has tried to create the shock of the new by unveiling a cabinet line-up that smacks of sweeping generational change. In David Miliband, he has appointed the youngest foreign secretary in 30 years. In Jacqui Smith, he has created the first female home secretary in British history. Mr Blair’s last cabinet had five people over 60. Mr Brown’s first has five under 40.
The most significant change that Mr Brown has signalled, however, is in the conversation he wants his government to have with the public. In recent years, Mr Blair and his administration often appeared preachy and hectoring, rarely conceding mistakes over Iraq or public service reforms. In place of “trust me, I’m doing the right thing”, often deemed to be Mr Blair’s watchword, Mr Brown is looking to be more open, more engaging, more humble.
Many of Mr Brown’s cabinet appointments point to this new tone. On Iraq, we will not see a sudden withdrawal of troops or renunciation of the UK-US relationship. But Mr Miliband has been critical of Iraq policy. Even more so has been Sir Mark Malloch Brown, the former United Nations deputy secretary-general, who has been made a Foreign Office minister. Both men are likely to shift the government towards a more frank assessment – and probably an early inquiry – into what went wrong in Iraq.
On domestic policy, too, there are signs of a shift towards a more relaxed tone. Mr Blair’s last home secretary was John Reid, a tough Scot with a menacing air. His replacement, Ms Smith, is a 44-year-old former schoolteacher whose approach on counter-terrorism is tough but who will make her case in more approachable terms.
Health policy, too, sees a change. Patricia Hewitt, who was dumped by Mr Brown this week, rarely conceded that there were problems with the state health service, suggesting to widespread derision that 2006 was turning out to be the service’s “best year ever”. Alan Johnson, her successor, is expected to be more of a soother, acknowledging problems with the system.
Is this shift in tone credible or sustainable? We should be sceptical for one reason. Mr Brown is the dominant figure in his own cabinet. Indeed, he dominates his government in a way that no British premier has done since Margaret Thatcher after the Falklands war. He was elected unopposed. He has no obvious rival. Indeed, there is nobody who could comfortably claim to be his successor.
Mr Brown can afford to be generous now. But when the going gets tough, as it undoubtedly will over time, the temptation will be to revert to his more domineering style. It was bye-bye Stalin this week. But not necessarily bye-bye for good.
The writer is the FT’s political editor