Max Hastings

Don’t drop the pilot

Middle-class voters are wrong to hope that Tony Blair becomes a casualty of war, says Max Hastings

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I keep meeting people with a dilemma. On the one hand, they want to see a swift, successful outcome of President Bush's crusade against Iraq. On the other, if the war goes horribly wrong, they perceive a chance to get rid of Tony Blair.

The vision fills them with an ecstasy normally reserved for winning the lottery, catching a salmon of more than 30lb, or seeing a financial services adviser suspended on a spit over a crackling fire. This Prime Minister nowadays provokes extraordinary passion. Among his predecessors, John Major was seen as an object of pity. Even Mrs Thatcher in her poll-tax days did not command the sort of cross-party loathing Blair has achieved. Jim Callaghan retained a certain public affection, even at the depths of his Winter of Discontent.

God has something to do with attitudes to Blair. Many people, who recognise that all politicians behave badly, recoil from the aura of rectitude in which he clothes himself, even when he is doing something wretched. Amid the shot and shell he is now receiving from his own party, Tony Blair's body language suggests, Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do. This does not play well among poor sinners.

Yet before we become too carried away by the possibility of seeing the current tenant's Downing Street lease terminated, stop and think about the alternative. If Blair goes, we shall not see him replaced by Iain Duncan Smith, David Blunkett, Disraeli or the Emperor Claudius. Our prime minister will be Gordon Brown. If that happens, many of the people now baying for Blair's blood will quickly become contrite.

The Chancellor has been playing his cards with ruthless skill. He has forged an alliance with some important people, including right-wing newspaper editors, whom he has persuaded that he is the only political bastion between Britain and the euro. His rhetoric in support of the government's Iraq policy, if one can call it that, has been minimalist. Few people doubt his private opinion, that the whole business is nonsense.

Not least because of this, he commands an affection within the Labour party which his rival prime minister has never done. Labour embraced Blair with reluctance and distaste in 1994, as the only man capable of leading them back to power. He served his turn. Yet one needed only to gaze at the faces filling the hall at last autumn's party conference to see how little real enthusiasm he arouses among Labour's rank and file.

With the opposition in receivership, the behaviour of trade union leaders and exhibitionist parliamentary private secretaries shows that today Labour feels able to take chances, to flaunt its conscience, to please itself, without fear of serious electoral consequences. It sees in Mr Blair a trimmer, a trafficker with the rich and with the Americans, a leader imperfectly wedded to Labour principles. It sees in Mr Brown an old-fashioned socialist. And in this it is surely right.

The Chancellor professes an enthusiasm for the American culture of enterprise, but almost everything he has done in office suggests scant understanding of how that culture works. It is true that he has lowered corporate taxation. But he has imposed a massive burden of new regulation and bureaucracy.

CBI director Digby Jones says that it is today harder to do business in Britain than it was five years ago. This is hardly American. Brown believes that the state, perhaps in the person of himself, knows better how to spend our money than we do. This is not American at all, but Glaswegian.

The Chancellor displays a visceral distaste for the 'haves' of society which would have done credit to Nye Bevan. He has created new incentives for the poor to save, when no sane person supposes that the poor can ever save. He has attacked the pension prospects of the better-off with shameless ruthlessness. The consequence of his actions, the damage to middle-class pensions, is likely to look even worse a decade hence than it does today.

Mr Brown professes a fierce dislike of elitism, above all in education. This wins warm applause from the ranks of his own party, and echoes the social engineering policies being pursued by the Department for Education. The Chancellor is a man of high intelligence. Yet he seems wholeheartedly committed to a doctrine which is wreaking havoc in the best schools and universities we have got.

Tony Blair is wriggling and twisting to avoid a showdown with the rural classes about fox-hunting. You may say that his equivocations are unattractive. But Mr Brown suffers no doubts at all - he is straightforwardly committed to a ban. He is happy to support this measure, as a simple class-war matter. Brown's personality is at best obsessive; at worst seriously disturbed. He takes counsel among a tightly knit group of advisers. Having made up his mind on an issue, he is then unwilling even to debate it. Spending departments often find that the Chancellor deals with appeals and proposals simply by ignoring them, if he is unsympathetic. He has elevated refusal to answer letters into a tool of political management.

The head of an important government financial institution remarked to me recently, 'Gordon doesn't like going into any meeting unless he can be sure what the outcome will be. He has no interest in freewheeling argument. He hates unstructured dialogue.'

Few people blame Mr Brown for the sagging stock market or the nasty turn of world economic conditions. But the insouciance with which he shrugs off these developments, and dismisses the notion that they must ultimately impact upon his public-spending plans, seems alarming. He has a responsibility to talk up confidence. But his behaviour goes beyond this, and implies a determination to deny the possibility that events would dare to meddle with a strategy to which he and his department have committed themselves.

Tony Blair, for all his faults, inhabits Planet Earth. There is a quality about Gordon Brown which makes him seem a mere visitor from an alien world. I believe that if he becomes prime minister, he will display a commitment to old-fashioned socialist policies which will do great harm to this country.

Some Tories welcome the prospect for exactly that reason. They argue that a Brown premiership will open clear blue water between the government and the opposition which will at last make possible a Conservative revival. Yet at what price? Britain's competitive position has already suffered significantly under New Labour. The country faces the prospect of at least another seven years of Labour rule. A huge amount of damage can be done in that time, if a man becomes prime minister who possesses a stronger ideological hostility to the English middle classes than did Denis Healey.

Conservatives find it frustrating to confront Tony Blair, whose woolly brand of social democracy is hard to outflank at the polls. But it seems sensible to hesitate before we become too eager to see the back of him. For all the Blair government's shortcomings, the Prime Minister still appears vastly superior to his predecessor Mr Major. Whatever deference Blair displays to God, he is, on the whole, a pragmatist, for which we should be thankful.

New Labour has so far inflicted only modest economic pain upon the middle classes. By contrast a Brown premiership, loaded with all the social and political baggage he would bring into office, threatens untold misery. We should be praying nightly for deliverance from such a fate.