The Man Who Would Be vs The Man Who Is

by Stephen Tall on September 27, 2006

I understand there’s a rumour that Tony Blair will, within the next few months, announce his intention to quit as leader of the Labour Party. (Don’t ask me where I glean this kind of gold-dust gossip: some of us are just incredibly well networked).

As a result, Labour is beginning to consider who would be best positioned to lead them to an historic fourth election victory. So let’s look at The Man Who Would Be, Gordon Brown.

For despite the ructions of the last month, he remains the near-certainty to be next Labour leader: he is not about to ‘do a David Davis’, and self-implode. Though his speech on Monday was drubbed by the force of Mr Blair’s majeure, it was by no means bad. And at least (unlike Mr Davis’s effort last year) the audience knew when he had finished.

The more apt comparison (I suspect) is with Ming Campbell, who started off the favourite to win the Lib Dem leadership and finished the winner – but who emerged from the campaign a little battered, a little bruised, and with less authority than he went into it. Ming had been the party’s deputy leader prior to becoming acting leader; just as Mr Brown has been deputy prime minister in all but name. But there is no substitute for actually doing the job, for being exposed to the cruel, swirling vicissitudes as the captain.

Mr Brown is a forceful, articulate, substantial advocate, with a firm sense of his own ‘moral compass’, though this appears to contrast sharply with his thin-skinned insecurities. As with any double-act, there is an unequal distribution of popularity – that the Blair-Brown partnership is no exception baffles and incenses Mr Brown in equal measure. (Perhaps it helps explain his preference for equality of outcome over equality of opportunity.) To look at Mr Brown’s face during Mr Blair’s sublime speech was to see writ large the eviscerating line, “Doesn’t he look tired?”

What their speeches brutally exposed was that Mr Blair understands and exploits narrative (to pitch-perfection) in a way Mr Brown – the ultimate policy wonk – does not and cannot. The Chancellor thinks, writes and speaks in bullet-pointed, carefully sequenced paragraphs: they link, but do not flow. The Prime Minister speaks in staccato, often non-sequitur, sentences: they gush, with an irresistible force.

The case against Mr Brown is simply stated. First, that he is not Mr Blair. But then neither is anyone else. (Indeed, Mr Blair is not always Mr Blair.)

Secondly, that he is dour, unbearably Presbyterian, and dull. None of these strike me as unduly bad things – if (and when) the wheels come off Mr Cameron’s bandwagon, I suspect the public might appreciate the contrast with a credible, experienced grown-up. That is, after all, why I voted for Ming.

Thirdly, that he is ‘psychologically flawed’, a man who makes enemies needlessly, and bears grudges shamelessly. Had he spent more time befriending the current Cabinet, Mr Blair would long since have been forced to stand aside in Mr Brown’s favour. If anything will prove Mr Brown’s undoing, it is this aloof non-collegiality.

Fourthly, that he is ‘yesterday’s man’. The public, and therefore politics, has a short attention span. Mr Brown has been Shadow Chancellor and then Chancellor since 1992: a full 14 years under the spot-light (so no wonder he looks frazzled). There comes a point when the electorate says quite simply, “What’s next?”

However, I do not under-estimate Mr Brown, whose leadership will present the Lib Dems with a real electoral test.

It has already been widely trailed that when he moves from the Treasury to become its First Lord, Mr Brown will proclaim ‘a new contract with the British people’: a written constitution, a commitment to a Parliamentary vote before declaration of war, an elected second chamber, perhaps even limited electoral reform. His passion for international aid is strong, and he will be keen to demonstrate this as prime minister. (Indeed, part of his antipathy towards the EU is based on its disgracefully illiberal protectionism, which keeps the developing world in poverty.)

All are policies which have long been championed by the Lib Dems, and would be supported regardless of which party wants to introduce them. But clearly it erodes the party’s USP when others begin to implement what we have pledged to do.

However, Mr Brown is not infallible. He will almost certainly have to stick by the ill-founded, ill-considered, and perhaps ill-fated plans to introduce national ID cards – if only to prove Labour’s increasingly authoritarian credentials to the right-wing press.

Nor is it possible to imagine circumstances in which Mr Brown will undergo a Damascene conversion, and understand what it means to decentralise power from Whitehall to democratically accountable local bodies.

And he will – because he cannot help himself – persist with ensuring all tax and welfare policies are as Byzantinely complex as possible to ensure that only he understands them (along with the wealthy accountants of even wealthier people, who will know full well how to exploit the loopholes created by Mr Brown’s ever-expanding tangle of red tape).

So what about the others…?

Well, the Lib Dems would welcome the election of John Reid, whose rampant ego and brittle toughness would be exposed not just as desperately unattractive, but depressingly ineffectual. He would, however, be a real threat to the Tories, some of whose voters would prefer a hard-nut Glaswegian to a metrosexual Etonian.

Alan Johnson is the wild-card of the pack. He has a neat turn of relaxed phrasing – witness today’s reflection on Mr Blair’s speech: “Old blue eyes will be back. He’s got gigs in Downing Street and in the Palace of Westminster” – and a down-to-earth CV most Labour politicians would kill for (ie, he once had a real job). The spiv-Brylcreamed, ‘I’m All Right Jack’ union-hack stereotype belies a politician who has proved he can walk the New Labour talk, steering the controversial ‘top-up’ tuition fees bill through the House of Commons. But he has yet to prove he can either sparkle (like Mr Blair), or tub-thump (like Mr Brown), or scare the living bejeesus out of anyone with a soul (like Dr Reid).

And as for David Miliband… “Breathes there the man with soul so dead”? Neither the Tories nor Lib Dems could be that lucky.

So Gordon it will be. But, y’know, life’s unfair. If Mr Blair had never been prime minister, Mr Brown’s job would be so much easier. The trouble is that Mr Blair, the consummate politician of his generation, has raised the bar higher than Mr Brown can hope to clear. Even if Mr Brown can out-vault his political opponents he will never be able to beat his greatest ever political rival, The Man Who Is.