Gordon Brown´s difficult succession

11.05.07 Publication:

Britain is about to experience a very strange political transition. It is going to have an utterly predictable change of prime ministers. It is a change of prime minister from one Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, to another Labour politician, Gordon Brown, the man who has been his closest collaborator in government throughout his decade in power. After Mr Blair announces his resignation next week, his successor will be elected to the party leadership without any serious opposition. Mr Brown has been Britain’s finance minister for the past 10 years and has presided over an impressively healthy economy, with steady growth and low unemployment. And yet the strange thing is this. Neither the country, nor the Labour Party itself, truly feels comfortable about the idea of Mr Brown as its prime minister. The inevitable new prime minister is also the unloved and, to many, unwanted new prime minister.

            Partly, this oddity arises from the fact that Britain will change prime ministers without having had a general election, which is a phenomenon that always leaves the British uncomfortable. Having had an election in 2005, which Labour won with a much-reduced majority, there is no constitutional requirement for another general election until 2010. In practice, it is likelier than an election will be called by 2009 at the latest, for few prime ministers wish to wait until the final permitted moment before calling the election. Many even speculate that Mr Brown might call an election sooner, in 2008, for he may want his own mandate from the electorate. Right now, however, the opposition Conservatives are well ahead in the opinion polls, leading Labour by eight or nine percentage points. Mr Brown will want to see the polls change in his favour before he risks calling an early election.

            But will they? Gordon Brown’s difficulty, in a way, is that he is too well known to the voters. Mr Brown will be a new prime minister. But having been at the very heart of Mr Blair’s government for a decade, he can hardly claim to represent a complete change. After such a long spell of Labour government, the simple rhythms of politics suggest that when an election is called voters are likely to think that change is what is needed. That is especially true given the main innovation of Tony Blair: that the two main parties now essentially compete for the same, centrist position. Mr Blair stole many of the ideas of his Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and thereby destroyed the idea that the Labour Party stands for something completely different, a high taxing and high spending socialist alternative. Today’s Conservative leader, David Cameron, is trying to steal from Mr Blair, both in style and in centrist substance.

            Mr Brown may not be truly new, but he will still try to show that he is different from Mr Blair. Most likely, he will bring in to his government quite a lot of new, younger ministers in order to suggest that Labour is capable of rejuvenating itself. He will launch a dazzling series of new policy initiatives, which he has been preparing for at least the past two years, in order to show that he has fresh ideas and new energy. The trouble is that he will find it hard to change the public’s already entrenched image of him and of Labour.

            The public’s image of Labour is of a government that has had many successes but which is now becoming corrupt and arrogant. Mr Brown is not thought of as being personally corrupt. In fact he is thought to have the highest integrity. He has managed to distance himself from the main corruption scandal in recent years, the alleged sale of seats in the House of Lords in return for big donations to Labour Party finances. He has also escaped all blame for Britain’s participation in the American invasion of Iraq. Yet although Mr Brown is considered to be clean, his image of cleanliness is not an entirely positive one.

            Gordon Brown grew up as the son of a Protestant preacher in Scotland. That gives him an image of integrity, but also of a rather forbidding, or off-putting, austerity, for that is what is associated with Scottish Protestantism. Everyone can tell that he is extremely clever and formidably ambitious. Yet those characteristics too are not entirely positive, in the public’s estimation. This is not just the traditional British distrust of intellectuals, though that is part of it. More important, Mr Brown is thought of as ruthless and devious. As finance minister, a job for which the British use the medieval name of “chancellor of the exchequer”, he could not expect to serve for ten years as principal raiser of taxes and end up being popular. But the phrase that has stuck to him, quite damagingly, has been the phrase “stealth taxes”: the idea that he has pretended to reduce taxes while in fact raising them through secret or hidden means. Moreover, his former top civil servant recently publicly accused him of having managed his ministry in a “Stalinist” manner.

            Mr Brown is thus clean, a man of integrity, but not a man who is well liked. He gained some humanity by getting married while in office, and then through family tragedy, when his first child died at birth five years ago. He has been rather admirably private in his reaction to that tragedy and then in the use (or, non-use) of his subsequent babies for political purposes, certainly by comparison with Mr Blair, who exploited his own new baby quite brazenly. But Mr Brown’s main political problem is not his handling of his personal life. It is that, in person, he does not seem very appealing to the public.

            To anyone who has met him and talked to him, this seems surprising. Gordon Brown can be an entertaining and interesting man to share lunch or dinner with. He tells good political jokes. He is full of stories, and is good at explaining his own policy ideas. He has that crucial political talent, a good memory for faces and people: I remember being impressed by this the second or third time I met him, when we encountered each other unexpectedly at an art exhibition in London, and he surprised me by instantly recalling that I have a background in Japan (which was relevant for the exhibition, since it was of some very Japanese-style paintings by Claude Monet).

            Despite those personal virtues, Mr Brown comes across badly in public. He is extremely awkward on television, with his answers to questions turning quickly into boring monologues, as if by a dull university professor. His jaw seems to wobble rather unattractively when he is interviewed, which is a nervous facial characteristic seemingly absent in direct personal conversation. In the end, the truth is that Mr Brown is not a natural political creature in this television-dominated age: he is more an Al Gore than a Bill Clinton, and certainly not a Tony Blair.

            So the question facing him, and Britain, is “what can he do about these disadvantages?” His temptation, and certainly that of his staff, will be to try to pretend that he has changed: that the new prime minister is a new man, repressed for a decade by playing second fiddle to Mr Blair, and now happy to kiss babies and show a more popular, less dour and intellectual face. He has already been flirting with this sort of tactic. Once in office, though, such behaviour is likely to be a mistake. His image is too entrenched for that. If he tries to be popular, he will always lose out to the Conservatives’ David Cameron, who is more than ten years younger and who really is a natural politician in the mould of Blair and Clinton. A better tactic will be to play to his genuine strength: his experience, his integrity, his reputation as a man who cares about social justice—which is not a reputation Mr Cameron can yet claim to have.

            After all, Mr Brown has presided over a decade of economic success, for which he can claim much credit. What the Labour government has not yet managed is to produce a consistent improvement in the public services of health, education and transport, services mainly paid for by the taxpayer. Despite having been finance minister, no one really knows what Mr Brown’s view is about the public services, for he has seemed a grudging ally to Mr Blair’s reforms. If he is to win the next general election, and make himself more than just a temporary, stopgap prime minister, he will have to show the public what he really thinks about such issues. And he must convince them that the public services would be safer in his hands than in Mr Cameron’s. Mr Brown faces a difficult, and nervously jaw-wobbling, couple of years before he faces that true electoral test.