Thursday, April 05, 2007


Gordon and Tony?

Britain’s sulker-in-chief has a problem. Well, obviously he has many: the ‘rob the poor to bribe the well-off’ Budget, the inconveniently-timed ‘we told you so’ over his clobbering pensions, all the cheery affability of a bulldog raised on lemons… Take your pick. Perhaps the most crucial problem for Gordon Brown’s chances of election in his own right, though, is one he’s had for over a dozen years. The problem’s name is Tony Blair, but while the problem’s nature used to be that he was too popular for Gordon to beat, now he’s too unpopular for Gordon to be associated with.

Richard, Millennium and I were watching Newsnight on Tuesday – never good for our respective blood / stuffing pressures – and it was one of those particularly unenlightening editions where the guests were semi-detached spin-doctors for each of the parties. Surprisingly, I had a moment of enlightenment as a result (it can’t have been deliberate on any of their parts). With the launch of the various local election campaigns, each of them was spinning like mad while attempting to give the impression of ‘telling it like it is’, which largely meant that each was doing their best to look like the regretful bearer of sad but unavoidable news about the others’ leaders. So far, so predictable. However, it was when they started to discuss Gordon Brown that things got interesting. I suspect in particular that it was while watching the (clearly Blairite) Labour spin-doctor’s self-contradictory self-destruction on trying to claim that Gordon Brown was lovely, wonderful and magnificent, and that’s why the best thing for him would be for somebody, anybody, dear God, please, to fall out of the sky and squash the bastard flat before he becomes Prime Minister and destroys Tony’s legacy (I paraphrase, but by surprisingly little).

Gordon Brown will be the next Prime Minister. There’s simply no-one else in the Labour Party who’s been allowed to develop his stature or ability, and though that’s something of an indictment – just as it’s an indictment of a party with pretensions to democracy that a conversation between two men over a decade ago decided their next two leaders, and no-one’s been allowed to challenge that since – I’d be astounded if anyone else serious even stands, let alone has the faintest chance of winning. What’s much more up for grabs is how long he can stay Prime Minister, as that’s not something a quiet deal can arrange. That’s where the problem of Tony Blair comes in, and it crystallised for me watching Newsnight the other night.

I used to agree with the received wisdom, vaguely, and through not having thought about it much, that Labour’s best chances lay in Mr Blair and Mr Brown working and campaigning together, because each of them reaches the parts the other doesn’t. But I’ve decided that’s actually bollocks, outside of the Labour Party. Yes, when they appear together and say how marvellous they are, it’s a signal to their would-be-warring followers to calm down and stop strangling each other, and of course there’s a lot to be said for keeping your party united (or, at least, making it appear less terminally split). The trouble is, for people without a direct stake in the Labour Party, I think Mr Blairledum and Mr Brownledee appearing together is a very bad idea.

Think about it.

A large number of the population (and I hold my hand up to this, though unlike many of this group I’m not a former Labour supporter) have a visceral dislike of Mr Blair. Whether it’s specifically over Iraq, or simply that they can no longer believe a single word he says, he is pure political poison. Analysis of different politicians’ willingness to answer the question, published today, reveals to no-one’s surprise that Mr Blair’s snake-oil evasiveness is (along with John Reid’s bullying hit-and-run technique) at the bottom. The Times’ headline oddly spins that “Gordon Brown is best of a bad lot for straight talk,” and although that’s not actually borne out when compared against non-Labour politicians – Ming Campbell, Nick Clegg and David Davis all answer the question rather more often – Mr Brown’s advantage is that he’s less wriggly than Tony Blair. He’s still as evasive as David Cameron, which is rather a lot, but it bears out my instinct that when Mr Brown finally takes over, whatever his own many faults and evasions, not only he will be seen as someone with more substance but there will be a huge sigh of relief around the country that he’s not Tony Blair.

But what, you might ask, about those people who also politics reasonably closely, but unlike the first lot think that Mr Brown is a surly brute (and probably one of those horrid socialists, despite all evidence to the contrary) while Mr Blair is a class act? Yes, it’s true; despite everything, even people who should know better still see Mr Blair’s talent and will pine for his smarmy gifts. All right, I admit he’s a brilliant communicator, and though I can’t stand him, what can Mr Brown do to follow that style? Well, pretty much nothing. He just hasn’t got it, and if people are looking for a new Mr Blair, there’s already an inferior copy on the market that has little of the same appeal. They will still go to Mr Cameron, though, because ‘little’ of Mr Blair’s charm is better than ‘none’.

Then there’s a third group of voters, probably rather larger than the first two who are leaning in a particular way already. That group haven’t made up their minds, but could vote for Labour. There are probably quite a few things they’re not happy about with this government, but they’re not sold on the alternatives. They can see some appeal in both Mr Blair and Mr Brown, but they also know – because they’ve heard it so often – that the two hate each other’s guts, and every time they see them on TV together they just say, ‘Who are they trying to fool? What a pair of fakes’.

So while Mr Brown and Mr Blair being seen together, smiling and getting on and reading from their carefully prepared spontaneous notes about how each admires and respects the other may have resonance within the seething cauldron of bile that is the Labour Party, it’s a killer vote-loser to anyone else. Tony Blair standing next to Gordon Brown is a reminder of what things have been like with Mr Blair, and whether that’s reminding people that Tony was good or that Tony was bad is immaterial. People who can’t stand Mr Blair will be put off by Mr Brown’s closeness to him. People who admire Mr Blair will measure the two of them up when they’re with each other and find Mr Brown wanting. And people who just have a head on their shoulders will simply find their fake bonhomie offputting, because they don’t like people putting one over on them.

It may be a giveaway that both the Newsnight report from the Labour election launch and the different parties’ commentators all repeated variations of ‘This is their last campaign together’. No-one doubts it. But why? Surely Mr Blair will want to campaign his heart out alongside his old friend Mr Brown to win Labour that fourth term? They may as well have said, ‘This is the last time each of them will ever need something from the other enough to overcome their mutual loathing’. Inside the Labour Party, Mr Brown laying claim to continuity will avoid warfare over Mr Blair’s ‘legacy’. But in the country, ‘continuity’ with Mr Blair will be poison to his chances.

Mr Brown’s only hope is to present himself as a change: the only hope to win support from people who can’t stand Mr Blair, his lies and his war; the only hope to win support from people who liked Mr Blair and think Mr Brown has no chance of matching him if he makes the mistake of trying to do so; the only hope to win support from people who are a bit fed up with this government and want to feel there’s a change, but haven’t made up their mind to trust someone else.

So, being the ‘change’ is what Mr Brown has to do. Can he do it? I don’t think he can. His record is Mr Blair’s record: between them, they devised New Labour and led the country, and if the most powerful Chancellor in history thinks they didn’t get it right, it’s too late now. He can hardly distance himself from his own ‘achievements’ – after all, take away his variable but much-trumpeted economic record, and what does Mr Brown have to fall back on? His charisma? And perhaps there’s even a deeper reason. Mr Blair has been pure poison in politics and to the Labour Party for years now, and all Mr Brown has ever done is sulk. He just doesn’t have the courage to make the split. I may be wrong, but when power is finally prised from Mr Blair’s cold, deadly hands, I don’t believe Mr Brown will even then have the killer instinct to say, ‘Right. You all know a lot of things went wrong with Tony. With me, it’s going to be different.’

NB – If anyone’s been trying to drop me a line this week, while my Hotmail account (see the sidebar) is still working fine, my ISP’s been having all sorts of problems. That means my main e-mail address, for those who know it, is currently bouncing. They promise to fix it by tomorrow evening, but don’t hold your breath! Please try sending any messages again in a few days, or to the addy given at the side here.

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