Gordon Brown: The man who would be king. Exclusive interview

The leader in waiting on his life, his family and his ambitions
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown is nursing a major regret. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes he had accompanied his father, a distinguished Presbyterian preacher, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

A "son of the manse", the Chancellor was enraptured as a boy by the travel stories his father brought back to Scotland from Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

"It's quite moving and it leaves a very deep impression on you," he says. "He usually went twice a year. I have always regretted I never did accompany him."

Yet last week Mr Brown had occasion to visit Israel twice in the space 48 hours.

It was not planned like that, of course. An intricate schedule of diplomatic visits, designed to bolster support for peace in the Middle East, was abruptly curtailed as news of an imminent defeat for Tony Blair over his Terrorism Bill filtered across the time zones.

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer stepped off the plane at dawn on Wednesday at Ben Gurion airport, flanked by a posse of sober-suited aides, he turned on his mobile phone to find panic-stricken messages from London, asking him to call. Within minutes, the whips were ordering the Chancellor back to Britain to help shore up flagging support for Mr Blair over his highly controversial plans to detain suspects without charge for 90 days.

After some hasty conversations with senior Israeli and Palestinian figures at the airport, Mr Brown was on the next plane back to twist arms of recalcitrant Labour rebels who were planning that afternoon to vote against the Government.

"I was returning to do my bit to maximise the vote, and obviously when these things happen you have just got to make the best of it," says the man who in some quarters has already been crowned as the only politician who can save the Labour Party.

It was a weary Mr Brown who landed at Heathrow at lunchtime, where he was immediately handed a list of backbenchers who needed "persuading". In a string of hastily arranged one-to-one meetings in Westminster he won over at least 10 Labour MPs, persuading them not to defy the Government and to support the Prime Minister. But it was not enough, and the Government lost the vote dramatically - its first defeat since 1997.

That night, as the headlines heralding the "Beginning of the end" for Tony Blair began to whirr off the presses, Mr Brown - already being declared the next prime minister by some in Fleet Street - boarded a plane to Israel for the second time in 24 hours, to resume his diplomatic mission.

"I had my second visit in a week!" laughs the Chancellor.

I am sitting with him in his neat Treasury office, having returned from Israel with him. After barely 13 hours' sleep in the past three days, the Chancellor is looking surprisingly lively and alert. Leaning back in his armchair he is confident and relaxed, as he chats about his childhood. He explains how his father's stories of life in the Holy Land sparked a life-long personal fascination with the Middle East.

Mr Brown says he would like very much to take his own son, John - named after his father - to Israel, with his wife, Sarah, when the boy grows up.

"I am absolutely sure that it would be great if he could come with us," the family man says, brightening conspicuously as he envisages the future father-and-son trip.

John has just turned two, and there is the unmistakable evidence of the presence of a toddler in the Treasury. There are rows of baby photos on the filing cabinet, alongside files about the imminent pre-Budget report announcement. It is hard to avoid tripping over a toy train.

The Chancellor explains that his son already knows a thing or two about railways. Only recently he was unwrapping presents with his son. "He had his birthday a few days ago. He got a train set. He loves trains," the proud father says.

Between Treasury meetings, the Chancellor has also been known to sneak out to plays for children. The other day he was spotted by parents in the queue for a live performance of Postman Pat - accompanied by his son and a serious-looking security guard wearing conspicuous ear-pieces.

Occasionally, he also leaves his exacting Treasury duties behind to accompany his young son to the zoo.

While the Chancellor was in Israel last week, Brown Jnr was innocently telling people that his father was somewhere else entirely.

"He was telling everyone he thought I was in China. I think he thought I had gone back to China because I had been there a few weeks ago," the Chancellor says.

Did Mr Brown manage to bring back a souvenir for his son?

"Did I have time?", returns Mr Brown, with an ironical laugh.

Mr Brown's schedule of overseas visits has been growing since he led the Make Poverty History campaign. He went to Africa during the campaign to write off debt, and meets European and American leaders frequently. His increased role on the international stage is interpreted at Westminster as preparation for a future role as Prime Minister.

Is this trip to Israel part of a move to carve out a role as world statesman? The Chancellor laughs with apparent embarrassment. "Oh no," he says brushing aside the notion with a flick of the hand. "It was something I was asked by the G7 to do and I am very happy to do it.

"It is part of our presidency of the G7 and the European Union. If you can make some progress on the economics of this area, I think you can make some progress on underpinning peace".

He may be anxious to play down his increased diplomatic role on behalf of Britain - undoubtedly to avoid envious glances from No 10 - but Mr Brown was greeted in Israel with all seriousness, being accorded the pomp and circumstance (including armed outriders) of a prime ministerial visit.

Following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and other world leaders seeking to build the Middle East peace, Mr Brown assumes the self-assured air of an international statesman.

Although his two-day schedule was truncated into a single day, he managed to pack in a string of crucial diplomatic engagements, including hosting the first-ever public meeting of the Israeli and Palestinian finance ministers.

In Ramala, on the West Bank, he met UN officials. He held private meetings with Ariel Sharon, and announced millions in investment in the West Bank.

The Chancellor regrets, however, that he was unable to visit Yad Vashem, the museum commemorating the six million dead of the Holocaust. Mr Brown is convinced that people should not forget the horrors of the Holocaust, or underestimate the corrosive effect of racism.

He has earmarked a £1.5m grant to allow two children from every school in Britain to visit the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

"It is important that you remind children in Britain that you cannot take peace for granted and that you have to continually work at eliminating discrimination and racism," he says.

Rumour has it he tried to get the Holocaust museum to open its doors at six in the morning - but his commitment was regarded as rather too enthusiastic, even by the early-rising Israeli authorities.

Following his trip, Mr Brown's private office has cleared the Chancellor's diary of everything - bar his interview with The Independent on Sunday - to give him a chance to rest.

Mr Brown may be 54 but he has the energy of a much younger man and he is not countenancing sleep in place of work.

Displaying remarkable resilience, he has filled the blank page of his diary with meetings and international phone calls to follow up his diplomatic visit. Anxious officials and Middle East advisers are huddled outside his door in preparation for a full debriefing on the trip and calls have to be made. After flying overnight with the Chancellor, they look tired and lack the energy of their boss who, slapping his sides energetically and looking them in the eye, declares, "Right. Next meeting ..."

So packed is his schedule the Chancellor has failed to eat and he appears to be rather famished. When a secretary arrives with tea, Mr Brown asks disappointedly, "What, no biscuits?" The secretary rushes back with a plate of miniature KitKats. The Chancellor rips open the wrapper and devours the snack in seconds. "I haven't had any lunch," he explains.

Mr Brown continues talking. His energy, on so little sleep, is rather disconcerting. As a photographer sneaks through the door to take some pictures, he notices, remarking: "Ah, a camera." He proceeds to chuck everything that might interfere with the pictures off the table and on to the sofa where his aide is sitting. As the camera begins to click away, the Chancellor talks about how prosperity in the West Bank can secure peace in the Middle East.

When the interview shifts on to domestic political issues - including the renewed talk of an early hand-over of power from Mr Blair to Mr Brown - he looks disappointed, if a little perturbed.

"You are very kind to come to a talk to me about Israel," Mr Brown says with a smile, as he bats off questions about Tony Blair and the increasing disaffection of Labour MPs.

Mr Brown is sticking to his script about the need to implement the Government's manifesto commitments, which include proposals to reform education and healthcare. But what about Tony Blair, the big issue on the minds of all Labour MPs this weekend?

Mr Brown brushes off the question, but admits there is an problem of disengagement with the voters, and a strange incongruity between their lively enthusiasm for issues such as cancelling African debt and failure to turn up to vote at the last election.

"The issue that is more relevant is this issue of disengagement," he says. "Political parties have got to look at what they are offering people and how they can best articulate or respond to people's needs."

The polls indicate flagging trust in Mr Blair and disaffection following the Iraq war. To make matters worse for the Government, in an interview with The Independent on Sunday last week, the standards watchdog, Alistair Graham, signalled that issues such as probity were not being taken seriously enough by Tony Blair.

"Oh, you did that interview!" exclaims Mr Brown. He waves his hands expressively as he speaks. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may be doing a good job of shattering the image he acquired of being rather dour and brooding, but he is not diverted from a serious defence of the Government's future programme. He defends the Government's record on sleaze, contending that with the freedom of information act and Bank of England reforms "we have probably taken more decisions than any other government to open up the business of government".

Sir Alistair called for an immediate review of the Ministerial Code, and suggested that Downing Street adopt his committee's advice to put the judgement over whether the code had been broken in the hands of a panel of wise men.

Would Gordon Brown accept the respected sleaze watchdog's advice, as a vehicle for rebuilding trust? Mr Brown hesitates before answering.

"Well, the decision on that code is a matter for Tony Blair, and I think that is where it is," he says.

He contends that although some polls may show a dip in trust in the government others demonstrate the opposite.

"You can take different polls about trust that suggest there is actually more or less trust in politicians now than before but going round the country, the problem that I see more of is that people have disengaged from the traditional political process," he says.

He attacks the Tories for "opportunism" in opposing the Terrorism Bill and rejects the charge that the Government will have to rely on the Conservatives to push through its reforms on health and education, in the face of opposition.

Mr Brown says this will not be necessary.

"Luckily, we have a majority."

But, after last week's defeat, how long can backbench support for the Government's programme be guaranteed?

Mr Brown, in a rare concession, admits more work may need to be done to convince Labour MPs and ensure that the programme is pushed through.

"In this world you have got to work at everything. We will continue to work at it. But equally we were elected at a manifesto and labour MPs who stood in the election will accept they have a duty to implement that manifesto," he says.

He is keen that the Government "listen" to people and try and find what their priorities are.

"I am going round the country and I want to hear what people have to say. There are a lot of things happening outside Whitehall and Westminster that we should be consulting people about.

"It's at the centre of what I feel we have to do over the next period of time," he says.

But couldn't this consensual approach, and his insistence on listening to voters, apply equally to the Government's approach to the Labour Party?

Shouldn't the Government consult its MPs before plunging forward with a programme of radical reforms?

"I think you are drawing conclusions from the past week that I wouldn't. I wouldn't ..." he says, somewhat haltingly.

The vote on terrorism has been widely acknowledged as a catastrophe for Tony Blair's administration. But Mr Brown, who is being urged by Labour MPs to do something to seize the throne, is not going there. He pledges his full support to Tony Blair's public reform programme.

"I accept that we didn't persuade enough people on this vote but what I do believe is that people expect us to go ahead and take the long-term decisions that are necessary for the future of Britain by enacting on our manifesto," he says.

Mr Brown says there are "some big issues ahead" the Government needs to tackle. These include taking a closer look at "how we can respond for people's desire for a better balance to working family life" and new skills during the course of their working lives.

He hints, rather helpfully, that his forthcoming mini-budget, will contain more help for parents to juggle work and home life, and help for working mothers.

"I think you find some of this reflected in the pre-budget report. It is our duty to look at how we can help parents who are now trying to balance work and family life," he says. "We have taken a number of measures, from maternity pay and maternity leave and the creation of Sure Start, and we must now draw lessons from how these changes are working and what more we can actually do.

"I find parents very interested in what works successfully in some areas, whether it is flexible working in a firm, whether it is powers for schools to be opening after schools during the summer holidays."

But Gordon Brown resolutely declares he will not be drawn headlines calling for Mr Blair's head, or a swift Brown succession. He declares that he has not read any of such reports and will not discuss them.

"I haven't read any of these articles and I am not getting into the personality debate. We are a Cabinet moving forward together, trying to make the right kind of decisions for the country."

But even a glance at the last few days' headlines suggest that many Labour MPs want Mr Blair to announce a date for his departure.

The Chancellor looks uncomfortable and shifts back in his chair. "I said I wasn't going to get into individuals or personalities. I never have, you know," he says.

"I really don't at this stage think that personalities or individuals come into it."

But what about a screaming headline which, during his visit to Israel, drew attention to deep disquiet within the Labour party?

"Which one?" quips Mr Brown. "The one about the divisions in the Israeli Labour Party?"

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