Why life under Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be no different

The author of the soundbite, `prudence with a purpose', would also have given presentation a high priority
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The Independent Culture
MANY AN entertaining political column has been filled by speculating on what might have happened had John Smith lived. Unfortunately Smith died so we will never know for sure. Of much more relevance now is another speculative question: How different would politics have been if Gordon Brown had succeeded Smith in 1994, and gone on to be Prime Minister?

For most of the Government's crises seemed to have hinged on the tensions between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor. In yesterday's BBC interview with David Frost, Blair was forced to trot out his line again about how well the two of them work together. There were questions, too, about Charlie Whelan, and of course Peter Mandelson, both of whom were caught up in the fault line between The Treasury ad Downing Street. Journalists, also, have become participants in the battle. Apparently, Brownites from The Mirror are licking their wounds, while Blairite journalists elsewhere are reassessing their position in the light of Mandelson's departure.

Anyone viewing events from Mars would assume there is an almighty battle going on between a right wing Prime Minister and a radical socialist living next door. So let us address the question. What would be different had Brown won in 1994?

The policy agenda would be broadly similar, not least because Brown has shaped it as much as Blair. Indeed the most distinctly new Labour policies emanated from Brown's office. Welfare to work; the windfall tax to pay for it; the public spending freeze for two years and then a big increase in spending in the following years; the independence of the Bank of England; some of the subtly redistributive measures in recent budgets. All would have occurred in exactly the same way under a Brown premiership.

Welfare reform would have evolved in a similar fashion also, messily at first and then reformist in a cautious, incremental fashion. Harriet Harman would have been Social Security Secretary under a Brown administration as it was Brown, himself, who proposed to Blair that she be given the brief in Opposition.

It is more questionable whether Frank Field would have received his poisoned chalice . Some of Brown's allies suggest it was Peter Mandelson who argued Field's case for a ministerial post especially hard. But before the election Brown and Field were a mutual appreciation society. Field predicted that Brown would be the greatest chancellor since Lloyd George. Like Blair, he would have been tempted to give Field a job. Now Alistair Darling is in the department pursuing a reformist agenda learnt from his first year in The Treasury under Brown.

What about the euro? When Brown ruled out entry for the first term in November 1997, I assumed that he was succumbing to pressure from Blair. I have been told so many times and so insistently from Treasury insiders that the proposal came from Brown, himself, I have to believe it. If that is the case he would have followed, presumably, the same policy as the PM. Both men are pro-Europeans who recognise that there is no point holding a referendum on the Euro if it could be lost. What is more, Blair's close relationship with Clinton, which at times conflicts with his desire to be fully engaged in Europe, would also have been a factor under Brown. It was Brown as shadow chancellor who was as at least as struck as Blair by the success of Clinton.

Looking at the footage of the two of them travelling around Washington in 1993 learning from the Clinton experience, is like watching films of the early Beatles, the equivalent of John and Paul in more innocent days.

Of course there would have been differences under a Brown premiership. No two politicians think precisely alike. Prime Minister Brown would have introduced a top rate of income tax. By now it is quite likely that child benefit would have been taxed, although this will happen anyway. I doubt if Brown would have given the go ahead to the Millennium Dome. But this is minor stuff.

The personalities in a Brown government would have been similar as well. If Gordon Brown had won, Mandelson would have remained an ally and prominent minister. Whelan would have been his press secretary. Ed Miliband, currently working for the Treasury team, might have swapped places with his brother, David, who is head of Blair's policy unit. Some personalities would have risen more quickly. However, a photograph of a Brown cabinet would not look strikingly different.

There is one area where so called Blairites and Brownites agree on a significant difference. Brown would not have engineered closer relations with the Liberal Democrats.

For sure Brown is an opponent of electoral reform and did not jump with joy when he heard that Blair had formed a Cabinet committee with members of Paddy Asdown's party. But the Cabinet committee apart - which is anyway of more symbolic importance than of any practical worth - I suspect we would be in exactly the same situation under a Brown government.

Blair inherited, somewhat reluctantly, a commitment to a referendum on PR from John Smith. He did not drop the commitment partly because it would have split his party, but also because, for strategic reasons, he wanted to ensure the Lib Dems focused their fire entirely on the Tories at the last election.

The promise of a referendum helped bring about the massive anti-Tory alliance. If Smith, a strong opponent of PR felt obliged to offer his divided party a referendum, Brown would not have wanted to re-open old wounds by scrapping it so near an election. Brown would have had Liberal Democrats thrust upon him in gratitude, even if he did not want them.

There would have been significant stylistic differences under a Brown government. The Third Way would not have had an outing. Clause Four - again meaningless in practical terms - may still have laid dormant in Labour's constitution.

More widely, there would have been a less explicit rejection of the party's past, although the adjective "new" would have been applied. Brown would have been more like Hague in his articulation of the nation's grief after the death of Diana. But that does not mean there would have been less emphasis overall on presentation. The author of "prudence with a purpose" and most of New Labour's most enduring soundbites would have ensured that presentation had a high priority.

Sometimes I am told by the Chancellor's friends that his more radical measures are implemented in spite of the PM's conservatism. Maybe that is the case, but the measures have been implemented anyway.

We must go on the evidence of the record so far and can reach only one conclusion: an administration run by Blair's only credible rival would have been almost exactly the same as the one we have at the moment.