What will Gordon do?

by Stephen Tall on January 9, 2007

Steve Richards writes in today’s Indy:

It is a myth that no one knows what a Brown premiership would be like. Much more is known about him compared with John Major at the point when Major moved into Downing Street.

Which is true. But Mr Richards neglects to mention two points:

1) Mr Major had been in the Cabinet for just 16 months when he found himself ‘risen without trace’ as Prime Minister. By contrast, Gordon Brown has occupied the most important Cabinet portfolio, the Treasury, for 115 consecutive months. The comparison, to my mind, seems a tad stretched; and

2) Is Mr Major really being held up as an exemplum to follow? Though I’m not sure the Tory Party was capable of being led in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration, Mr Major did little to dispel that notion.

‘Soft left’-leaning commentators are as in thrall currently to Mr Brown, just as non-Europhobe right-wingers are to David Cameron – with as little justification. Mr Richards’ touching faith in the Chancellor’s future omnipotence appears to rest on two factors.

First, that Mr Brown will be able to continue his largesse when it comes to education, to meet his repeated aspiration to “to spend as much on state pupils as the levels currently enjoyed by those that go to private schools”. It’s possible he will find the money: somehow, somewhere. If he does, it will only be by cutting spending on other public services, given the national belt-tightening exercise necessary in the next three years.

But, even if he does, he will be dodging the key question, which isn’t: how much money can the Government spend on state education. But, rather, how can existing money be spent better, while giving parents (and their kids come to that) more of a say in children’s primary and secondary education? For sure, decent funding is a vital pre-requisite; but so is local accountability, and a genuine choice of school – rather than the current postcode lottery.

The second factor Mr Richards identifies, though, is rather more interesting – that when Mr Brown finally steps up to the No. 10 plate he will assemble a ‘ministry of all the talents’. It’s a well-worn phrase, but it’s just possible the Chancellor means it more than most. Mr Richards notes his friendship with non-Labour luminaries such as former US Fed Chair, Alan Greenspan, and Make Poverty History crusader, Bob Geldof.

He could also have noted Mr Brown’s penchant for commissioning independent experts to produce weighty reports on controversial issues so as to take the political sting out of their tails: Wanless on the NHS, Lyons on local government finance, Turner on pensions, Stern on global warming. The question is not whether Mr Brown will seek to buttress his incipient premiership with such an impeccable Praetorian guard, but how he will do so.

In one sense, Mr Brown is now in a happy position. Expectations of him have now been so lowered, and expectations of Mr Cameron raised so high, that he can afford to relax more than might have once been thought possible. For all he knows, he may have just two years as Prime Minister, at least with a governable majority. Why not make the most of it, throw caution to the wind, and let rip with a slew of radical initiatives that will make at least a dent in the history books?

Such a schema would go very much against the grain for such a controlling and cautious figure as the Chancellor. But he may have only one opportunity… Damn, this ‘touching faith’ is infectious.