The Brown-Blair Feud: does it matter?

by Stephen Tall on January 7, 2005

The British media has once again become obsessed by the personality clash between the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. But does it matter?

The latest bout of gossip and rumours was triggered by two events. First, Brown’s decision to write a column in The Guardian trailing Labour’s childcare policies, which was widely touted (not least by his ‘closest advisors’) as his only means of contributing to Labour’s manifesto for a third term. And, secondly, by his swift response to the tsunami disaster, pledging aid and debt write-offs at a time when the Prime Minister was being barracked for remaining on holiday.

There are two points here. With regard to childcare and the manifesto, it’s clear Blair has tried to clip Brown’s wings by giving Alan Milburn full charge of election planning. Yet we can be sure that childcare *will* be central to Labour’s agenda. So is it really relevant that Gordon’s sulking? Will Labour’s policies in their widely expected third term differ because of the spat? No. Or, at least, if they do, only at the margins.

Doubtless we can expect many more eruptions from our dour Chancellor in the coming months, all designed to position him as Tony’s heir-apparent (and, as Blair’s face ages at a rate of knots, his hair-apparent). But these personality clashes will not affect Labour’s policies. In that sense, they are quite different to the vicissitudes which raged in Thatcher’s cabinet between the Premier and her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson.

Secondly, the Daily Mail furore about Blair’s holiday is yet another depressing symptom of the presidential politics we have come to expect under Labour. (Though, in fairness, Tony’s hardly the first Prime Ministerial perpetrator.) Do we honestly expect the Government’s response would have been different had the Prime Minister been geographically based in this country? Do we really think that Blair was unable to follow world events, unable to keep in touch with his advisors via phone and e-mail?

To me both answers are obviously ‘No’. But the fact that they are being asked (and that some of you will have answered ‘Yes’) is disturbing. The Prime Minister is supposed to be ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals. Yet because Blair feels compelled personally to drive forward all this Government’s initiatives – and doesn’t trust his ministers to follow his wishes, or, even when they are fully signed up to the New Labour agenda, to execute them effectively – we have come to expect his presidential fingermarks everywhere. This isn’t healthy, personally for the PM, or systemically for the country.

I do not fully subscribe to the Tony Benn line that Parliament should be sovereign in all policy matters. A chain of command is important to ensure direct accountability between electors and the elected: there needs to be a chap or chap-ess at the top at whose desk the buck stops. But that does not mean the Prime Minister needs to carry the world upon his shoulders. What it does mean is that he needs a competent Cabinet with ministers he feels able to trust. The Blair-Brown feud is merely the most visible symptom of the wider fault-line in the New Labour Government.