European Affairs

For although he is fêted in the United States and many other parts of the world, Mr. Blair has for some time now been deeply unpopular with his own political party, and indeed in the country at large. Until recently the general perception in the UK was that it was only a matter of time before Mr. Blair stepped down to make room for his long-time rival and heir apparent, Mr. Brown. Now some people are not so sure.

Mr. Blair’s support for President George W. Bush over Iraq is the main reason why Mr. Blair’s popularity has plummeted. It has been fairly well established that Mr. Blair was, at the very least, cavalier with the British public about the reasons for invading Iraq and about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Blair’s bleakest moment came during the early phases of the general election campaign this spring. The Labour Party’s private polling indicated that this political giant on the world stage was so distrusted and disliked by his own party, and by other electors canvassed on doorsteps, that he stood to lose most of his 170-strong Parliamentary majority in the May 5 general election.

Faced with this glimpse of the abyss, Mr. Blair sent Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor to what is often termed “New” Labour, to negotiate peace terms with Mr. Brown, who had headed Labour’s successful election campaigns of 1997 and 2001. Irritated by Mr. Brown’s open ambition to succeed him, Mr. Blair had sidelined Mr. Brown from the 2005 contest. Mr. Campbell pleaded with Mr. Brown to return to center stage. He did, and Labour’s electoral fortunes improved immediately and dramatically. It was generally assumed that the quid pro quo for Mr. Brown’s help was a promise by Mr. Blair that he would step down within a couple of years and back Mr. Brown as his successor.

It is not within a British prime minister’s powers to appoint his successor, but Mr. Brown is the obvious favorite for election as Party Leader if Mr. Blair stands down reasonably soon. Last year Mr. Blair announced that he would not run for a fourth term as prime minister. Although in theory Mr. Blair could remain in 10 Downing Street until 2010, most political observers expect him to leave well before then.

At least they did until two recent events. The first was the “No” vote cast by the French in their referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty on May 29; the second the terrible moment on July 7, when the long-feared terrorist attack on London took place.

The French vote is widely seen as having let Mr. Blair off an especially awkward hook by removing the need for him to hold the British referendum on the constitution he had promised for 2006. Mr. Blair wants to go down in history as the prime minister who finally resolved the ambiguity of Britain’s place in Europe; but he would have manifestly failed in this ambition if the referendum did not go his way, and the odds were that he would lose it. Either way, he was expected to leave office after the referendum.

In the unlikely event that the vote was “Yes,” Mr. Blair could have departed graciously, claiming finally to have reconciled the British nation to the European Union. If the answer was “ No,” inexorable pressure would have mounted for him to resign. Now, however, with plans for the referendum suspended, there is no obvious date for his departure.

Secondly, the terrorist attacks have brought the prime minister back into the limelight. Mr. Blair has a way of rising to tragic occasions ­ his public comments after the death of Princess Diana provided an early example ­ and far less attention was initially paid in the British media to any possible connection between the terrorist attack and Mr. Blair’s support for the war in Iraq than to the statesmanlike and dignified manner in which he responded to the terrorist atrocity in front of a worldwide audience.

As the weeks have passed, polls have shown that most of the public disagrees with Mr. Blair’s view that there was no link between the terrorist attacks and Britain’s involvement in Iraq. Meanwhile, however, Mr. Blair has come to the fore as the European leader whose job it is to preside over meetings of the European Council in the second half of this year, and thus try to lead the European Union out of the crisis created by the rejection of the constitution by French and Dutch voters. Mr. Blair has bounced back from his low point, and appears to be relishing the big stage again. This has led some observers ­ including people who have known him for a long time ­ to speculate that he will want to hang on for considerably longer.

Nevertheless, the strong view in Labour Party circles and among civil servants who are well seasoned at spotting the shifting sands of political power is that the entire British political system is in the process of witnessing a slow handover from Mr. Blair to Mr. Brown.

The two men have been close political associates and competitors for over 20 years, and there is little love lost between their rival camps. Mr. Brown has long been impatient to take over, and undoubtedly remains the strong favorite to do so.

If he does, the United States need not have any doubts about his commitment to the Atlantic alliance, despite widespread British hostility towards President Bush. Mr. Brown is a great admirer of the United States, takes his annual vacation on Cape Cod, and has even been quoted as saying he would like Britain to be more like America. He is also at least as responsible as Mr. Blair for Labour’s adoption of market economics and privatization.

Mr. Brown was known to be skeptical about the Iraq adventure, yet as treasury secretary he financed Britain’s participation, and, when cornered at a crucial stage of the election campaign, conceded that he would have done the same as Mr. Blair had he been in his shoes. All the same, nobody has ever accused Mr. Brown of being President Bush’s “poodle,” the derogatory label often attached to Mr. Blair, and some analysts believe that Mr. Brown’s very distance from Mr. Bush in the public mind would make it easier for him to pursue pro-American policies as prime minister.

His main interests, however, are domestic; he looks overseas, especially to the United States, for lessons in how to improve the UK’s economic performance at home. While an admirer of the U.S. economy, and in no way an old-fashioned socialist, he still feels strongly about certain aspects of U.S. society, such as the estimated 40 million Americans without health insurance. Although not known for his expertise in foreign affairs, he has shown much more interest recently, most noticeably in leading the campaign for debt relief and more foreign aid to Africa.

Mr. Brown is a fast learner, but he would have to be ready to delegate more as prime minister, and also to be more diplomatic in his relations with the rest of Europe. But, although at times he has rubbed his European counterparts the wrong way, there is little doubt that poor economic performances by Germany and France have created greater interest in Mr. Brown’s policies in continental Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French presidential aspirant, says he wants to know “how Britain does it.”

As Chancellor of the Exchequer for eight years ­ the longest chancellorship since that of Nicholas Vansittart (1812-1823) ­ Mr. Brown is widely credited with having steered the British economy rather more successfully than his colleagues in the euro zone, which he is in no hurry to join. But the British economy has slowed this year, and the gloss is beginning to wear off. That is one reason why it is in Mr. Brown’s interest for Mr. Blair to step down soon, while Mr. Brown can still take credit for a long period of economic success. After all, Mr. Brown’s favorite joke is: “There are two kinds of Chancellor: those who fail, and those who get out in time.”

Another reason is that experience suggests that the longer the heir apparent waits, the more vulnerable he becomes. In relatively recent Labour Party history, Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979, had to wait around too long, and never secured the succession to James Callaghan. At present, Mr. Brown has huge support in the body of the Labour Party and has no obvious rivals, but one can be sure they will appear from somewhere if Mr. Blair hangs on until 2008 or 2009 (in theory, the next general election need not be held until 2010.)

Mr. Brown’s supporters are already becoming impatient. They feel they have been tricked by Mr. Blair before, and fear it could happen again. But their record of plotting Mr. Blair’s downfall is not a happy one. They usually tend to chicken out ­ indeed one astute observer believes that Mr. Brown will never make it to 10 Downing Street because he lacks the killer instinct. Mr. Brown has in fact rescued Mr. Blair from trouble over a number of his more controversial policies ­ such as opening up the state health service to the private sector, and introducing higher tuition fees for university students.

The Blair camp is now using recent events to suggest the prime minister will carry on indefinitely. Others in the Labour Party acknowledge that he has handled recent weeks well, and that he obviously cannot go during the EU presidency, which lasts until the end of 2005. But there is a strong feeling that there will be rumblings in the ranks if he does not depart gracefully in 2006, possibly saying farewell in a speech to the Labour Party conference in September.

William Keegan is senior economics commentator for the London Observer and author of The Prudence of Gordon Brown, published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chichester, England.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number VI, Issue number III in the Summer of 2005.