Fraser Nelson

John Reid may not be able to beat Gordon Brown: but he can rattle him

Since he was first outmanoeuvred over the Labour party leadership in 1994 Gordon Brown has pursued a strategy as simple as it is ruthless

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Since he was first outmanoeuvred over the Labour party leadership in 1994 Gordon Brown has pursued a strategy as simple as it is ruthless: he identifies his most likely challenger and destroys him. Alan Milburn, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke were all once seen by Tony Blair as potential successors. Yet all now lie on the back benches embalmed, awaiting political burial. But there is one who remains defiantly at large, having sidestepped every landmine planted for him by fate or the Chancellor. Brownite bullets seem to slide off John Reid.

‘I am the current Home Secretary,’ he declared to guests at a Home Office reception on Tuesday evening, joking about his own survival record. Those asking about his leadership ambition were rewarded with a mischievous smile, but no answers. In private, as in public, he does not talk of a ‘smooth transition’ of power to Brown: he looks forward to a contested leadership election and refers to candidates (plural) who can do Blair’s job. He is almost alone in the Cabinet in being utterly unintimidated by the Chancellor.

This was more than evident at a dinner held in Glasgow last Christmas where, I am told, he regaled guests with the history of Labour party leadership contests. In no case other than John Smith’s has the front-runner won. His small audience was invited to draw their own conclusions. He went on to say that he alone in the Cabinet has taken the time to address Labour members of the Scottish Parliament. Those present were amazed: Reid was canvassing for a leadership election, and had started by challenging Mr Brown on his own turf.

To understand what Mr Reid is up to, it is necessary to delve into the factionalism currently tearing Labour apart. It has been observed that the Prime Minister’s dwindling band of supporters are now split into the ‘ultras’ who want him to serve a full third term and the ‘capitulators’ who accept the game is up. But the ultras are now themselves divided into those who simply wish to delay Mr Brown’s accession as long as possible, and those who wish to go further and arrange a New Labour challenger for him to face. For such people, Mr Reid is their only hope.

They see in the Home Secretary not necessarily the next prime minister — they know how heavily the odds are stacked in Mr Brown’s favour — but the only Cabinet member with the courage and acumen to stand up to the Chancellor and to steer him towards a New Labour path. Or, more specifically, a new New Labour path. While the 1994 dividing line was drawn over anachronistic debates about nationalisation, the 2006 fault line lies over whether the market or the state is the best mechanism for delivering public services.

City academies, foundation hospitals — all are Blairite devices for designing an internal market in public services which is deeply resented by the Labour rank and file. Mr Brown cleverly exploits the ambiguity of existing political vocabulary, and says simply that he is ‘New Labour’, resurrecting the 1994 dividing lines as a fake test of his modernising principles. The real issue, which will affect the shape of Britain until the return of a Conservative government, is whether he agrees on the ‘choice’ agenda. Fundamentally, Mr Brown believes in the state and Mr Blair in the market.

The Prime Minister may have difficulty getting this message across, but Mr Reid has none. Arguably the finest speech made at the last Labour conference was his. In his closing remarks he wove together his ex-communist principles with the market-led consumer agenda advanced by Blair. ‘Working people are as entitled to choice as much as the well-heeled,’ he said. The state, he said, should be the ‘servant of the individual’ and be taken ‘off people’s backs’. For those who didn’t like it, he had a message: ‘If it’s purity and impotence you want, join a convent.’ Just try and imagine Mr Brown telling Labour delegates the same.

A Reid vs Brown battle would not only flush out the Chancellor’s true ideological position but would introduce the public to Carine Adler, an award-winning filmmaker from Brazil whom he married three years ago and to whom he is utterly devoted. She is articulate, successful, beautiful and entering the prime of her career — she is currently filming Stray, a thriller starring Emily Mortimer. She would bring to a leadership contest the kind of glamour which cannot always be guaranteed by Mr Brown’s musings on the economic threat from India and China.

One Blairite explains it thus: Mr Reid is genuinely working-class, whereas Mr Brown is the son of a church minister and a product of selective state education. Mr Reid can talk to the public in language they understand, while Mr Brown sounds like a budget podcast. Mr Reid has won personal battles (overcoming a drink problem) and started his Cabinet rise late in life, while Mr Brown’s personal narrative is one long, unhealthy obsession with the top job. And finally, Mr Reid has run government departments (this is his seventh Cabinet portfolio), which Mr Brown, really, has not.

Naturally, the Chancellor would dispute all this and claim, as he did a fortnight ago, that he could run the Home Office with the efficiency with which he has run the economy. This is a myth the Conservatives have, to their shame, never managed to puncture. Mr Brown does not run the economy: he just taxes it. When he has managed something — such as the tax credits system — bureaucratic disaster has ensued, with pensioners and poor families being hounded for the overpayment of billions.

As things stand, there is no doubt that Mr Brown would win any race, not least because he has the trade union vote sewn up. The only question is whether Mr Reid will carry out his threat to stand, and here the evidence is, alas, ambiguous. During the Labour party conference, the teetotal Reid stayed late at the bar one night and was asked why he had not endorsed Brown’s candidature at a time when the most loyal Blairites, like Tessa Jowell, were pledging loyalty. ‘They all look like they’re handing in their bloody CVs,’ he snapped. ‘If Gordon wants to give me a job, fine. If not, he can ...’. The sentence descended into expletives, but the meaning was clear. Mr Reid is driven more by cordial contempt for Mr Brown than an expectation that he can really be prime minister.

Mr Reid will not, I am assured, rule himself out publicly, whatever his private inclination. He wants the prospect of his leadership candidature to haunt Mr Brown throughout the summer. And if Brown can’t destroy Mr Reid — and he will certainly try — he will attempt to cut a deal with him.

This, for most of the Blairite ultras, is the aim. The Chancellor, while almost certainly unstoppable, can be expected to make some policy concessions to placate Mr Reid, perhaps issuing guarantees on the reform agenda, perhaps offering him the deputy leadership. As Mr Blair has already told Mr Brown he will go by next year’s Labour conference, the spectre of a Reid leadership bid is the last remaining bargaining chip. ‘Do I have kamikaze written on my forehead?’ asked Mr Milburn, when recently challenged about his own leadership ambitions. Perhaps not, but Reid has ‘fearless’ written on his. For this reason, he is the Blairites’ last hope.