Smart move could stop Chancellor always being the political bridesmaid

After years of tantalising companions and colleagues alike, Blair's best man removes last doubt over eligibility to succeed PM
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Indy Politics

Friends of Gordon Brown said yesterday that his marriage would enhance the Chancellor's prospects of achieving his long-term ambition to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister.

Friends of Gordon Brown said yesterday that his marriage would enhance the Chancellor's prospects of achieving his long-term ambition to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister.

Close allies insisted that Mr Brown would have wed Sarah Macaulay - or one of his previous girlfriends - years ago if he had wanted a marriage of political convenience. His apparent reluctance to tie the knot with Ms Macaulay had frustrated some members of his inner circle.

Mr Brown is the ultimate workaholic and his marriage will not curb his hunger for the top job. "He was already brilliantly placed politically; now he is brilliantly placed personally too," said one friend who was in on the big secret. "This makes him a more rounded person."

Mr Blair's young family was one factor in his emergence ahead of Mr Brown as the modernisers' candidate when John Smith, the Labour leader, died in 1994. Mr Brown, then shadow Chancellor, was the senior partner in his alliance with Mr Blair and had much deeper roots in the party. But it was Mr Blair who was seen as more likely to win Labour the general election.

"Being a single man was used against Gordon by his enemies," another friend recalled. There were unsubstantiated rumours on the Westminster grapevine that Mr Brown was gay.

In an age when the private lives of politicians are subject to intense media scrutiny, there is no doubt that Mr Brown's marriage will shorten his odds in Labour's future leadership stakes.

Lorraine Davidson, former spokeswoman for the Scottish Labour Party, told BBC Radio 4: "As Chancellor his marital status wasn't particularly important to the voters. But I think that people in Britain still like to see their Prime Ministers married. If they have got successful, attractive wives and young families, then all the better. So there's still time for that too."

Whether Mr Brown finally achieves the top job will depend heavily on the circumstances in which Mr Blair departs. Last month the Prime Minister signalled that he would serve for a full Parliament if Labour wins a second term. But if he had hedged his bets, he would have been accused of offering voters "a pig in a poke" at the election.

Some in the Brown camp still hope Mr Blair will stand aside halfway through the next Parliament, perhaps after a referendum on the single currency. If he achieved a Yes vote, Mr Blair would have secured his place in the history books. If he lost the referendum, he would be seen as a broken-backed Prime Minister and might well quit for the sake of his party.

Even before his marriage, Mr Brown was probably the man most likely to succeed Mr Blair. But he was by no means certain to do so and there have recently been rumblings in cabinet circles of a "stop Gordon" campaign by ministers who resent his unprecedented intervention in the way they run their departments.

Supporters of David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, have been talking up their prospects. Mr Blunkett hopes to win promotion to the Home Office after the general election and Mr Straw's friends say he is a strong candidate to be Foreign Secretary.

But outsiders often win leadership races and there is still time for ministers such as Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, to come through on the rails.

Mr Blair's successor would not be chosen by the Cabinet but by an electoral college in which MPs, trade unions and Labour Party members would each have a third of the votes. Mr Brown's friends are confident that he would command the strongest support in all three sections of the college.

Their aides describe Mr Brown and Mr Blair as closer than any Prime Minister and Chancellor for 100 years. In theory, this could damage Mr Brown's chances of succeeding his long-time ally. In practice, it probably wouldn't matter.

Mr Brown has put some light between him and Mr Blair on the euro and the leaked memos written by Philip Gould, the Prime Minister's hyperactive pollster. His policies have redistributed wealth, even if Mr Blair does not like him to shout about it.

The private tensions between the two most powerful men in British politics are greater than they can afford to let on. Mr Brown still bears a grudge about losing out to his junior partner in 1994, and one Blair aide has described the Chancellor as having "psychological flaws". Such strains will come under the spotlight again this autumn when a book is published about their relationship.

Mr Brown's hopes could also hinge on the state of theeconomy and Labour's willingness to elect a Scot as leader when there is now a Scottish Parliament.

Although his fortunes are largely tied to Mr Blair's, Mr Brown is clever enough to exploit the growing disaffection with New Labour inside the party and inherit the mantle of John Smith denied him six years ago. "We missed out in 1994," said one Brown aide. "Next time it will be different."