Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Has the Brown bubble burst?

I enjoyed the article by Robert Harris in this morning's Guardian. It offers a revisionist account of recent Labour history and a useful corrective to those who imagine that a Gordon Brown government will be more acceptable to Liberals than this one.

First the revisionist history. Writing of the agreement reached at that famous Granita dinner, Brown says:

Brown was granted unprecedented powers within any future Labour government and an assurance that he would be next in line of succession, in return for his grudging withdrawal from the leadership contest. This has always been presented by the chancellor's supporters as a brutal stab in the back by his ruthless young colleague. But a moment's reflection on the nature of Brown, and of politics at that level, tells one that this must be nonsense.

A poll of Labour party members on the weekend before the Granita agreement, showed Blair with 47%, John Prescott with 15%, and Brown trailing a poor third, with 11%. Brown could not command an absolute majority even in his main powerbase of Scottish MPs. He knew he was going to lose, and probably lose badly, and having bitterly resigned himself to the fact, then proceeded to play a poor hand with consummate skill, extracting the enormous concessions that have hobbled Blair's leadership ever since.

As Harris says, Blair's position would have been far stronger if he had fought and defeated Brown in the 1994 leadership election:
The true low level of Brown's support within the party at that time would have been revealed once and for all. He and his acolytes would never have been able to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Blair's position. And, most importantly, he would never have been able to portray himself as virtually the prime minister's co-equal: unsackable, with a permanent lien on the Treasury; a colleague for whom any hint of a transfer in a reshuffle, even to the Foreign Office, was regarded as an act of lese-majeste.
I have seen it suggested that Gordon Brown missed his best chance of the leadership by declining to stand in 1992 out of loyalty to John Smith.

But wouldn't a Brown government be preferable?

Harris reminds us that Brown is more of an instinctive Atlanticist than Blair, so there is little reason to expect him to be cooler towards the US administration. He has remained largely silent on Iraq, which many have interpreted as opposition to Blair's policy, but it may equally be calculation.

And the centralism and target-mania that have characterised New Labour owe most to Brown's influence at the Treasury than to Blair. On pensions, for instance, Brown has fought a long rearguard action in defence of the means test.

I first realised what New Labour was going to be like in government when I heard Gordon Brown speak at a City function in the winter before they came to power. He offered a new sense of national purpose through work - it sounded like something out of the old East Germany.

Those with more time for Brown than I have will probably enjoy today's article by John Harris on the new Old Labour group Compass.

Tomorrow I full expect articles by Anita Harris and Chopper Harris.

1 comment:

Rob Knight said...

Very interesting. The idea that Brown has somehow denied us the Blairite (and implicitly neo-Thatcherite) government that people have been voting for is an idea that will appeal to David Cameron in his 'heir to Blair' mode, anyway.

I think it reflects more the fact that Blair lacked real convictions. By the time he figured out what he was supposed to be doing as PM, it was almost too late and all of his later reforms have had to be pushed through against Brownite opposition.