Loyal friends face critical test over Labour's future: Dilemma for Brown as Blair certain to stand for leader

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Indy Politics
A REAL human drama is unfolding between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, of a sort rare even in the Labour Party. Facing the most difficult decision of his career Mr Brown, like every other potential candidate has to consider two questions: whether he will win the party, second and whether will he win the country.

And Mr Brown could well do both. The momentum behind Mr Blair is persuasive but not conclusive, and the support from the Tory press could provoke more of a backlash, than it has yet done. (There are even dark claims among some Labour MPs that it is being proffered with just that purpose in mind.) The profiles of the prospective candidates are not yet high enough for the opinion polls to be reliable. There are unpredictable currents moving among mourning MPs. The NEC will probably decide to complete the contest by July and without a costly and unnecessary special conference.

But if the contest were postponed until October, as John Evans, the St Helens MP, suggested, yesterday those currents will become even more unpredictable.

A few friends of John Prescott suggest that after maximising his support he should, in the interests of unity, announce he will not be a candidate. The role of Robin Cook, more opposed to Mr Brown than Mr Blair, remains in doubt.

But all the signs are that Mr Prescott believes there should be a debate on policy within the party before the leadership is concluded, and that he is the best candidate for the alternative view to that of Mr Brown and Mr Blair. But there is more than a press campaign behind Mr Blair. All the anecdotal evidence suggests a bandwagon is now rolling for Mr Blair, reaching even into the left of the party. And in Mr Brown's natural heartland of Scotland, there are MPs privately declaring for Mr Blair. Others, it seems, will back Mr Brown if he runs but would prefer it if he did not, on the simple ground that Mr Blair is better placed to win in England.

The closeness of the friendship and political alliance between the two men is no mere convenient journalistic fiction. For several years now, the two have been best friends, in and out of each other's offices, testing their speeches on each other, debating ideology, never failing to consult each other on when to take risks. In the darkest days between 1987 and 1992, not even Neil Kinnock always realised the depth of their loyalty to him, at times isolating themselves from their Shadow Cabinet colleagues to back the leader's struggle. to make the party electable. And what makes it all the harder for Mr Brown now is that until at least 1990 Mr Blair was - just - the junior partner in the relationship, convinced that he had no greater or more compelling goal than to serve in a Gordon Brown administration.

Nor has it been Mr Brown's fault that of the daunting tasks before each man since the election - in Mr Blair's case, making Labour seem more credible than the Tories on law and order; in Mr Brown's, detaching the party from the assumption that Labour meant higher taxes - Mr Brown's was always the one that would make more enemies within.

As a Scot, deeply imbued in the socialist traditions of his country, Mr Brown may well feel that it is easier for him to lay claim to the Smith legacy. But he is also deeply disinclined to jeopardise the further modernisation of the party. In theory, in a preferential voting system, both candidates could stand. But it will not be lost on Mr Brown that a leadership campaign devoted to extending Labour's appeal to middle England will be blurred if there are two champions for that project. It is now surely inconceivable that Mr Blair will stand down. Mr Brown's closest allies deny it, but the best prediction must be that, not tomorrow and not the next day, but soon enough, Mr Brown will come to the conclusion that all his intellectual weight, his popularity and his political courage should be thrown behind Mr Blair's campaign.

(Photograph omitted)