Amid the din of war, listen out for the politician who keeps silent

If the war does cost us higher taxes, no one will fairly be able to blame Mr Brown for raising them
  • @annemcelvoy
STOP A minute: pause amid the war talk and revelations of those hot internal divisions behind the cool New Labour facade. When politics is noisy it is worth listening out for those keeping the most eloquent silences.

The senior member of Government going about his business most smoothly and quietly these days is the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. His enemies may gloat that "Gordon hasn't had a war at all", meaning that he hasn't been on the television sounding statesmanlike. I see no sign that Gordon resents this. Chancellors do not warm to wars. They interfere with the accounting. Mr Brown's success in office has been the result of his ability to exploit relatively small room for manoeuvre and magnify the impact of the results by some nifty presentation,

So far, he has studiously avoided acknowledging that there is a war on at all. Early on, he remarked that the contingency fund of some pounds 1.2bn was covering the costs. But money gets spent a lot faster than this in a war - some pounds 60m from Britain so far. So the Treasury made a brief statement last week announcing that an "audit of war" was under way to check the running costs of the enterprise. This was so discreetly announced, with Mr Brown at a safe distance in Scotland, that it went unnoticed.

But the subject will soon be unavoidable. An unintentionally ironic point is made on the implications of the conflict by Maurice Saatchi's and Peter Warburton's pamphlet calling on the Tories to kneecap Peter Lilley and all the other born-again Big Spenders and opt for lower tax rates instead: "With the formation of a new government by the Liberals following the 1905 election came a change in the way taxation was viewed: from a means of supporting wars to a way of supporting the people."

Well, something has to give, to support the war effort, and raised taxes and/or heavy government borrowing are a distinct possibility. Some of those opposed to Britain fighting Slobodan Milosevic at all have been so carried away by their desire for the Government to fare ill that they are prophesying dire consequences for Mr Brown. On this view, his reputation as the Iron Chancellor will be undermined when the bills come in.

Mr Brown looks to me like a Chancellor who has prepared himself for just such a development. His very discretion about the war and its costs is the first plank in his survival strategy. By making clear that he is not a front-line political figure in this conflict, he is also ensuring that the blame for any financially unpleasant domestic consequences does not rest on him. If it does cost us higher taxes, no one will fairly be able to blame him for raising them. That event will be seen, for better or worse, to have been the result of Mr Blair's wholehearted engagement in the Balkans.

The outcome of the war remains uncertain, as is its aftermath in British politics. Mr Blair has so far looked like a confident leader, out-hawking some rather tentative American hawks. But a more difficult hour may come, If the outcome in Kosovo is an unstable fudge, the last thing the Prime Minister wants - or deserves, given his own robust stance - is to end up having to pass off a failure as a success.

Mr Brown, meanwhile, has consigned himself to a bloodless but more certainly glorious battlefield - the Scottish elections, where the only question is the margin of New Labour's victory. This is not the way things looked early this year when the Government drew up its plans for the scrap with the SNP and concluded that Donald Dewar desperately needed the help of another big hitter with appeal to the Scottish electorate. As I understand it, the Chancellor saw this as something of an onerous duty for someone of his seniority. In his darker moments he may have muttered something about these English modernisers being all very well in their place, but the Labour Party still needing its Scottish backbone when real challenges present themselves.

Yet the election has given Mr Brown the opportunity to pitch his tent firmly on the reassuring turf of Britishness, and to appear as an inclusive politician who incorporates both a distinctly Scottish and a United Kingdom identity.

He used his intellectual base, the John Smith Institute, to deliver a major speech on Britishness earlier this month. The association with the legacy of the late Labour leader, John Smith, is a sign that Mr Brown sees himself as the continuation of the moderate Labour tradition, as opposed to the conscious mould-breaking that Mr Blair embodies. It is a distinction that will doubtless be drawn again this summer when the fifth anniversary of Mr Smith's death is commemorated.

In Scotland, Mr Brown is free to indulge as much sentimentality about the memory of Mr Smith as he likes; it does no harm in the late Mr Smith's homeland, whereas the Blairites always feared that Mr Smith's old-fashioned aura and reluctant embrace of the middle classes were an electoral liability in the south of England. Never think that these old differences have ceased to matter. New Labour is shaped by the failures of the past, which means that it can never escape the memories.

None the less, Mr Brown mustered the magnanimity to ask his old feuding partner Peter Mandelson up to Glasgow to dispense some strategy advice for the final phase of the election campaign. In the laying bare of the 1997 rivalries at New Labour's court, Mr Brown emerges in the most enviable position of all his senior colleagues. Take the now famous chapter in Don Macintyre's biography in which Mr Mandelson leaves a planning meeting abruptly after a disagreement with the shadow Chancellor and offers his resignation as campaign manager. Mr Blair writes back, with half an eye on the political record, "We are not players in some Greek tragedy." Geoffrey Robinson, the kindly plutocrat, seeks to calm down Mr Mandelson over lunch, with singularly little success. All is flurry, spin and high emotion. What does Mr Brown do? Very little. You gain the impression of a rather stolid creature in the middle of all the fuss, imperviously getting on with the election.

This is an intriguing change from the more frequently peddled picture of Mr Brown as a tortured soul, unable to recover from having had the mantle of Labour leadership snatched from him by Mr Blair. Indeed, once Mr Mandelson became a minister, the Chancellor allowed his Treasury court to pursue the old feud by proxy. Minions fought a dirty war on both sides and Mr Mandelson was the ultimate victim. Perhaps the cathartic force of this outcome has brought both of them to their senses; perhaps the Chancellor is simply finding it easier to be well-adjusted when Mr Mandelson is down on his luck. But a certain peacefulness has descended on the turbulent heart of New Labour. You might almost think that the boys had grown up at last. On past evidence, we can only wonder how long the sanity will last.