It is clear from the Prime Minister’s new year message (issued somewhat surreally from the Florida home of the Bee Gee Robin Gibb) that he has already entered elder statesman mode. His theme was that Mr Brown must continue along the path which Mr Blair claims to have set: ‘[Labour] is dominating the battle of ideas. It will continue to do so provided it continues to be New Labour. This isn’t just about policy, though it is certainly about taking the tough decisions that prepare Britain for the future. It is also about our instincts, our ability to keep the core coalition together.’
In other words, the Prime Minister was telling Mr Brown to be like him or face the electoral consequences. This is of a piece with his speech at last year’s Labour party conference, which was a warning that the party should not stop being bold and radical. As is the wont of elder statesmen, however, Mr Blair is misremembering his time in office; although, uniquely, the Prime Minister is managing to misremember it while still in office. The bold, radical promise of 1997 has been squandered precisely because he has been neither bold nor radical.
It is traditional for commentators to look ahead at the beginning of every year to the next 12 months and to muse on how the year will be different from the one gone by. It is all nonsense. The passing of 12 solar months has no unifying thread. One might just as well pick any other random date from which to look ahead to the next 365 days. So I suggest that we forget about January through to April, ignore the notion of a 12-month cycle, and focus instead on the 24 months from May to the likely date of the next election in May 2009.
We already know what the political event of 2007 will be. Even if David Cameron is run over by the proverbial bus or Sir Menzies Campbell wakes from his political slumber, nothing else will stand comparison with the departure of the most brilliant politician of the modern age (a description which has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with strategy and tactics) and his replacement by the most overrated politician of the modern age.
As is usually the way with these things, it is only after he is gone that Labour will miss Tony Blair. Even at the height of his political powers, his party would have preferred it if he had stuck to the Bar and the adjective New had never been associated with the word Labour. When Gordon Brown takes over, the astonishing political skills of Tony Blair will come sharply into focus — but with hindsight.
It is one thing to have as Chancellor a man who speaks as if words are merely a formula for conveying policy and who will only answer the question he has been programmed to answer — we are sort of reassured by the idea of the books being looked after by someone with a chip missing. Being Prime Minister, however, requires a very different personality.
The public mood apparently demands a break from spin and from the smoothness of Mr Blair. Yeah, right. Have those who think that not noticed the rise of David Cameron? In any event, Mr Brown is hardly the man to ditch spin. Mr Brown was responsible for the manoeuvre which first gave the government the reputation for spin: passing off modest spending increases in 1998 as a spending bonanza by triple-counting them. As for the supposed contrast with Mr Blair of Mr Brown’s lack of smoothness, if there is one thing more cringe-making than the genuinely smooth Prime Minister, it is the attempts by Mr Brown — such as the rictus grin now attached to his face — to come across as a smoothie.
But it is not just about image. The axis of politics will be different under Mr Brown. That, though, will not be because of Gordon Brown. It will be because of his opponent. If Mr Brown was fighting a Conservative party led by David Davis, the battle lines would be much the same as in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections. Blair versus Major, Blair versus Hague and Blair versus Howard were fought as the centre versus the Right. Not surprisingly, the centre won. It always has. Even Baroness Thatcher won her three elections because she was seen as being closest to the centre, in contrast to an unelectably left-wing Labour party.
When Mr Brown takes over from the pro tem Prime Minister, the axis will shift not because Brown is some Old Labour dinosaur (he isn’t — he is the creator of New Labour) but because David Cameron is making his pitch from the centre. Indeed, in areas such as the environment, he wants to be seen as being to the left of Labour. This shift in the axis would have happened already, had we not been in a political phony war since Mr Cameron’s election as Conservative leader, awaiting Mr Blair’s departure.
As ever, the main battle will be over public services. But it will be an oddly muted battle. Under the old axis, Labour’s scream of ‘cuts’ worked, whatever the Conservatives proposed. Because Tory leaders were right-wing, Labour could get away with a message that it cared and the Conservatives didn’t. No more. Indeed, Mr Cameron’s most daring raid on Labour’s territory is to fight on Labour’s ‘we are nicer and smile a lot more’ ground. Politically, it is brave, but the previous strategy of traditional Conservativism could hardly be described as successful; it led to three landslide election defeats.
But whatever the political merits of Mr Cameron’s strategy, it is a depressing time for those of us who believe in competition in public services. The Conservatives have only one pledge so far: to keep the NHS fully tax-funded. In education, the best they can come up with is a risible list of ‘12 great people’ to be taught in schools, including Aneurin Bevan, which is almost beyond satire.
What would tilt the new political axis even further off its existing kilter is the likely triumph of the Scottish Nationalist party in the May elections to the Scottish Parliament. An SNP administration using an expected referendum in Scotland on the issue to step up the push for independence, in combination with an unpopular Scottish prime minister and growing English resentment at the subsidy paid by taxpayers to finance the bloated Scottish public sector, would produce a cocktail the like of which has not been since the Act of Union.
Mr Brown will seek to govern like Mr Blair because caution and conservatism are his natural instincts, whatever the spin might pretend. The impact of the Scottish elections, however, may focus that caution not on public services but on keeping the Union together.
Stephen Pollard is president of the Centre for the New Europe.