Monday, February 13, 2006


Gordon Brown's Equally 'High Wire' Route to No. 10

It struck me over yesterday and this morning how delicate Gordon Brown's role will be over the next year or so. Blair has spoken about his own 'high wire' politics over the education bill but Gordon's seem equally vertiginous. He has to stay within the following limits to maintain his chances of serving out a decent time as prime minister:

a) appear to be loyal to Blair, even when he has severe doubts e.g. over education policy. If he fails in this task he might well lose party support for his own election. If he weakens party unity he will hasten Blair's demise but throw his succession into question.

b) appear to be establishing his own profile and agenda. John Major failed to do this, prefering merely to follow Thatcherite policy tropes and arguably lost much of the momentum his remarkable 1992 victory should have won for him. Brown's speeches at the moment, all scheduled to be on non Treasury matters, are designed to do just that.

c) sustain his stewardship of the economy. It should not be forgotten that his is the key job in any government and after 8 years doing it, he must be feeling the strain- especially with a young child in the house and another on the way.

d) defend himself from crtics. These are found amoung Blairite supporters in his own party who fear their chances of either retaining or acquiring office wil be damaged with Gordon doing the hiring and firing. In addition David Cameron has been relentlessly targetting Brown as a dinosaur obstacle to much needed reform.

If Gordon departs too far from a) in pursuit of b) his balance on the high wire is threatened. If he fails with c) or becomes too prone to d), his chances of even a brief time in Downing St are might fly out of the window.

All this reminds us, as if we needed it, that politics at this level is exhausting and immensely demanding physically, nervously, emotionally and, indeed, intellectually. That BBC2 programme on Blair and the EU on Saturday evening showed Jack Straw struggling at an EU summit to persuade Austria's female foreign minister( so immensely tall she dwarfed him) to allow concessions in her country's oppostition to Turkey's entry to the organisation. Having been immersed in highly detailed discussions thoroughout the summit, Michael Cockerell told us the Foreign Secretary had only thre hours sleep in two days; Straw looked and sounded shattered.

In our often unreal expectations of our politicos we tend to criticise mercilessly before we appreciate just how thanklessly draining these jobs must be. But, I suppose, we shouldn't feel too sorry: they entered this strange world voluntarily; they seem to enjoy- even revel in- its rigours; and should they falter, there are legions of pretenders just waiting to take their place.

Brown's biggest challenge is to appear loyal but not too loyal to Blair - over education policy and everything else. If he isn't Blairite enough, he risks a challenge from someone closer to Blair - such a candidate wouldn't win in those circumstances, but they could damage Brown. However, if he's too obviously a Blairite, if party members, and MPs in particular, can no longer convince themselves that this has all been a bit of a sham and Things Will Be Different under Brown, then he risks a challenge from the traditional right of the party.

A challenge is certain to come from the traditional left of the party, and with two or three such challengers the field is open a bit more. Brown will probably win, but again he could be damaged, and may have to pull off a few deals to secure victory (Lynne Jones for the Deputy Leadership, perhaps). But it's also possible that someone else might get those deals done first.
Can I ask a possibly naive question on this issue of the Blair-Brown succession?

Why is it assumed that Blair can just hand over the mantle when he feels like it? Aren't there any rules about the election of a leader to take into account?

Even if Brown is very popular and would emerge as favourite, surely there is a ballot or selection process of some kind to be gone through first.

What are the Labour Party rules on this issue? i think we should be told.

That's more than one question, I know ...
Yes, there are procedures laid down. There will have to be a contest for the succession as in the case of when Callaghan took over from Wilson in 1976, or indeed, in the Conservative case, when Major succeeded Maggie. It is by no means assured that Gordon will smoothly move into the driving seat as I expect there to be at the very least a leftie challenger. Brown could deal with that but a more centrist fellow candidate like Reid or Hain, would cause him headaches. Just getting Tony to stand down is only the start of Gordon's quest, I fear.
PS to above comment. Gregg's comment above Roy's partly answers Roy's question as well and I agree with him that deals are probably being made right now. Those 'tectonic plates' are certainly in motion now
I cannot seriously envisage Reid or Hain challenging Brown!
Reid was mentioned about a year ago as having confided Gordon would not have it all his own way when/if Blair stood down. I mention Hain as he seems ambitious and tends to push himself forward on issues outside his portfolio. Charles Clarke was mentioned a while back too. He's a heavyweight alright but his performance in office at education and the Home Office has not really measured up to the highest expectations for many of his colleagues. Which all means that, with the possible exception of Reid, and a token leftie challenge, the field is effectively wide open for Brown. But things seldom go smoothly in politics....
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