I detect a certain edginess in the corridors of power. Whitehall awaits Gordon Brown’s putative premiership with much uncertainty and some trepidation. As the clock ticks towards Tony Blair’s departure, the mandarins have come to an awkward realisation. They know just about as much as the rest of us as to how Mr Brown intends to steer the nation. That means not very much at all.
Such discomfort is unlikely to trouble the rest of the country. The voters’ preoccupations are with jobs and incomes, law and order, taxes and public services. The popular judgment on Mr Brown will ultimately weigh the burden of higher taxes – another £2bn rise announced last week – against the benefits of measurable, but still uneven, improvements in hospitals, schools and the rest.
Yet there is an important connection between Whitehall and the world beyond. The manner in which Mr Brown treats cabinet colleagues and mandarins alike will, over time, shape perceptions in the country.
A prime minister who runs government as a personal fiefdom
will soon enough be seen as one who also wants to direct all our lives.
Or might Mr Brown finally relax?
Among his aides, there is excited talk of the first 100 days. The chancellor, it is said, wants to make an immediate splash. We should expect a tumult of bold initiatives and grand announcements from the moment he steps into Number 10.
This strikes me as a curious strategy. For all that the government is in the doldrums, there is little to suggest that the voters want a break with the Blair agenda. David Cameron’s efforts to corral the Conservatives into the same centre ground rather suggests the opposite. The risk for Mr Brown is that any effort to define himself as different from his predecessor will be interpreted as a lurch to the left.
In any event, none beyond the chancellor’s tightly drawn inner circle seems to know what these initiatives might be. There are suggestions of further changes to the constitution and of some rearranging of the Whitehall furniture. But this is about political process rather than policy, hardly of great moment to those beyond the Westminster village.
On the substance – Mr Brown’s attitude, say, to the extension of choice and diversity in public services, his view of the relationship with the US and of Britain’s place in Europe, or his willingness or otherwise to back tough words on crime with new prisons – everyone remains in the dark.
Officials of a small “c” conservative bent console themselves with the belief that, beyond re-engineering the machinery of government, Mr Brown has few options for radical departures. He can recalibrate priorities – education already looms larger – but a promised squeeze on overall public spending will militate against any other big shifts. Likewise, the recommendations of Washington’s Iraq Study Group have probably set the course for the most controversial dimension of Britain’s foreign policy.
The preoccupation is as much with temperament as with policy direction. Substance matters. So does style. The question most often asked by officials – and for that matter by Mr Brown’s ministerial colleagues – is whether he plans to govern the country in the manner he has run the Treasury.
The record here is scarcely encouraging. The departure from the Treasury of Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the government’s excellent climate change report, is the latest testimony to the chancellor’s impatience with those ready to speak uncomfortable truths. Sir Nicholas, it is said, had once been too blunt in voicing some of his concerns about the public finances. Mr Brown has preferred to fill the upper echelons of the Treasury with officials pledged to answer “yes, minister” – and mean it. Neither the institution nor the chancellor have profited. The Treasury has lost a reputation for honest economic analysis. Mr Brown has denied himself advice that might have saved him some embarrassing misjudgments.
Experienced Whitehall hands
will tell you that this style of government simply will not transfer from Number 11 to Number 10 Downing Street. For all that
Mr Brown has greatly extended the policy remit of the Treasury, as prime minister he will still have to range far beyond his present experience.
The aides he intends to take with him to Number 10 lack the requisite knowledge. The breadth and pace of prime ministerial decision-making will force him to be open to advice from a much wider circle of officials. Mr Brown will also, unavoidably, be more exposed, politically and personally, than he has been accustomed to.
My guess is that he will take some convincing to change. But he would be wise to pay heed. Mr Brown too often seems to be shouting at the voters as well as at his officials. That can be forgiven in a chancellor. But people want something more closely resembling a conversation with their prime minister. Understanding this has been one of Mr Blair’s great political strengths. Mr Cameron intends to imitate him.
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