A sense of stagnation has descended upon the House of Commons. The king is dead, and yet the new king will not be enthroned for weeks. Nothing much can happen in the meantime. After delivering his latest farewell speech, Tony Blair is still making spectral appearances around the country for purposes no one is quite able to establish. Labour MPs sit around in groups, distracting themselves with the folly of the deputy leadership race. Neither they, nor anyone else in Westminster, have anything useful to do. The only show in town is Gordon Brown.
The Chancellor has been a turbine of activity. He has been giving speeches, entering debates, glad-handing pensioners and starring in one £10-a-ticket show entitled ‘The Man Behind the Politics’. The old, grouchy unkempt caterpillar from the Treasury is turning into a beaming, £135-a-haircut butterfly ready for No. 10. We have five weeks to witness this unlikely metamorphosis.
A large part of his change is stylistic. It is rumoured that his aides have littered little ‘smiley’ stickers throughout his paperwork, and inside his car, reminding him to grin at every occasion. If true, this technique seems to be working. He has beamed his way through most of the past few days, grinning beatifically even as he tells us yet again about the ‘moral compass’ which his parents apparently bequeathed to him. His only political chore has been to bat away a kamikaze challenge from Labour’s left.
But soon he will embark on a broader, more urgent task: to reach out to the former Conservative voters whom Mr Blair wooed in the 1990s. It may seem a tall order for a man who has become synonymous with tax raids and who, unlike the Prime Minister, neither looks nor talks like a Tory. But as the Brownites prepare to present their man to Middle England (which Mr Brown famously seems to think is a place where his wife comes from) they will be able to dust down several sides to his character which may justifiably appeal to right-leaning voters.
Take his control freakery. While irritating to certain Whitehall mandarins and many a Cabinet minister, it is this trait which led him to prevent early entry to the euro — at a time when Mr Blair was wittering on about the singe currency being Britain’s ‘destiny’. He likes power — yet greater integration with the EU involves surrendering power. He loves detail, and the project of ‘ever-closer union’ depends on ministers overlooking detail. He is a natural born Eurosceptic.
Next, his ‘Stalinist’ tendencies. It is worth remembering that Mr Brown was accused of having these by Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet secretary, who was discussing his brutal efficiency at getting what he wants. ‘You cannot help admire the sheer Stalinist ruthlessness of it all,’ he said; however back-handed and grudging, this was a compliment of sorts. And a bit of Stalinism would strike a favourable contrast from the drift of the Blair years. The Chancellor discovered, as Lady Thatcher did, that being brutal with the Civil Service is often the only way to get things done.
Mr Brown is also unlikely to increase tax on the rich. His grasp of statistics, if not his visceral politics, has allowed him to see the futility of discouraging high earners. When asked at a Fabian Society debate on Saturday whether he would tax City bonuses, his response was fascinating. When Labour came to power, the wealthiest tenth contributed 40 per cent of the income tax haul, he said. Now, this has risen to 50 per cent. He has found, as George W. Bush did, that the rich shoulder more of the burden if incentivised to earn more.
Finally we must consider Mr Brown’s contacts book. It is often said that the Chancellor can be charming when he can be bothered to find the ‘on’ switch. Among those he has won over stand some of the world’s most powerful figures. The two most likely contenders to win the American presidency, Hillary Clinton and the Republican Rudy Giuliani, both prefer him to David Cameron. Whatever else one may say, it is hard to argue that he is an inconsequential figure on the world stage.
So here stands Mr Brown’s opportunity. He is a man of immense political gifts, has a proven mastery of government and a fearsome strategic brain. What will determine his success is whether this brain leads him to recognise his failures of the past ten years and whether — at the age of 56 — he is capable of changing tack. Does he actually believe in the Potemkin economy conjured up by his selective statistics, or does he appreciate the depth of the problem he is concealing?
Ten years ago unemployment among the under-25s was 14.4 per cent, a figure that Mr Brown then decried as a ‘human tragedy on a colossal scale’ and announced that his ‘ambition was nothing less than the abolition of youth unemployment’. Little is heard about this ambition today. That is perhaps because the figure has risen to 14.5 per cent, and the Chancellor has moved on to other grandiose goals with faraway targets. His New Deal has been an expensive failure.
This has been the strange thing about Mr Brown’s economic expansion. It has made almost no dent on Britain’s aggregate welfare figures — about 5.5 million on out-of-work benefits throughout the Labour years. Most worryingly, the Sure Start nurseries, which Mr Brown describes as ‘havens’, have been shown to impede learning of the most deprived children. It is fairly clear that new policies are required. To pursue the old ones would entrench failure, and guarantee election defeat.
But the Chancellor hinted at precisely this change in direction at his speech at Knebworth on Friday. He pledged a ‘new kind of politics’ where he would ‘give power away’ — precisely the opposite to the centralising policies he has been associated with so far. It was an intriguing hint, which he has not elaborated on. It may be a false scent, or it may signal a point of departure.
Might Mr Brown offer the upfront tax cuts, however cosmetic, which the Conservatives have foresworn and attempt to attack from the right? ‘You’d think that would be impossible,’ says one shadow Cabinet member, ‘but to win the election, I’d say he is capable of anything.’ Mr Cameron regularly reminds his team not to underestimate Mr Brown and to rule nothing out. It is sound advice. After a year and a half of cold war between them, battle is finally beginning.