All told, Tony's learnt a lot from the royals

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The Independent Online
SELDOM has a man looked so uncomfortable in so many different settings in a single week. On Monday, Gordon Brown was pictured at a children's birthday party in what looked like a borrowed jumper and with what was certainly a borrowed infant. On Tuesday, his performance in the House of Commons was solid and dull, peppered with New Labour buzz words which did not trip lightly from his austere lips. On Thursday, he joined the Prime Minister at a London school for the Tony-and-Gordon show, at which Mr Blair was in his element, whipping off his jacket and playing shamelessly to his audience. Wedged between a floral decoration and a background of vacuous New Labour slogans - including "tax cuts for business", which has surely made many a young heart beat faster - Mr Brown kept his jacket on and his face straight. Only his body language suggested he was not enjoying the experience.

Like a couple of bad comedians, the two embarked on a series of ponderous exchanges which highlighted their uneasy relationship. "Thanks for letting me present the Budget, Tony," said Mr Brown, to which the younger man responded with a paternal pat: "You're doing fine," he said, an accolade so provisional that it explained Mr Brown's nervous reference to next year's Budget - "if Tony lets me give it". Word went round last week that Mr Brown, whose Treasury is awash with money, wanted to present a much more radical Budget but was constrained by his master's cosy relationship with the CBI.

Increasingly, Mr Brown gives the impression of being a thoughtful politician who has been co-opted into the political equivalent of It's a Knockout: a fast-moving show in which no remark is too bathetic, no viewpoint too anodyne, for Mr Blair to espouse it. On Friday, in an interview with the Mirror, he devoted most of his observations to his relationship with the Royal Family. Gushing like an actress in Hello! magazine, and revealing about the same level of articulacy, he went on and on about Diana, Princess of Wales. "I mean," he said, "you must understand the sense of loss people feel. I mean we all do." What the interview revealed, once again, was Mr Blair's reluctance to say anything of substance about anything. Even the remarks allegedly made by the chairman and vice-chairman of Newcastle United produced only a sorrowful reference to "a very sad and unfortunate incident".

Mr Blair sounds more and more like one of the royals himself, determined not to be drawn on controversial subjects during a visit to a widget factory. This makes life difficult for his opponents within the Labour Party - there are some, even if we haven't heard much from them - who watch in exasperation as Mr Blair's charm lulls his interlocutors into a state of dazed sycophancy. The parallel with the Windsors is striking, right down to Mr Blair's fondness for telling "jokes" which, in other circumstances, no one would find funny. "We used to have very earnest discussions in the Labour Party about the meaning of socialism and all that sort of stuff," he said on Thursday, prompting an outburst of hilarity from his audience. Mr Brown refrained from the hollow laughter which would be a natural response to this contemptuous dismissal of Mr Blair's roots. To extend the royal analogy a little further, he finds himself in an impossible position: a dour Prince Charles, upstaged at every turn by Tony Blair's spirited impersonation of Diana.

ROBIN COOK'S trip to Israel, meanwhile, produced some very undiplomatic language. Seizing the shreds of his ethical foreign policy - somewhat threadbare after Britain's near-war with Iraq and the Government's supine attitude to China - the Foreign Secretary finally got it right for once, refusing to go along with Israel's attempt to stage-manage his visit. The Israeli Prime Minister's revenge, calling off dinner with Mr Cook, revealed the extent to which his government thinks it can call the shots even when dealing with the elected representatives of other nations.

Only a month ago, we were being told about the danger Saddam Hussein poses to the rest of the world. No one doubts he is a tyrant, although I still believe he is more of a threat to people living within his borders than to his neighbours. In terms of the region's stability, the harsh truth is that it is Benjamin Netanyahu's administration in Israel which is making the prospect of peace in the Middle East recede further and further. It is only because Israel has been treated for so long as a special case that Mr Netanyahu felt able to make such a fuss, responding like a bully who senses that things are not going to be so easy in future. We don't often see a member of Mr Blair's government taking a strong line but on this occasion Mr Cook's famed tetchiness served him (and us) rather well.

A FEW weeks ago, I mentioned my dispute with Hounslow council, which has come up with a plan to ban me and my neighbours in west London from parking outside our houses. We live on the boundary between two boroughs, Hammersmith & Fulham in the east and Hounslow in the west, but Hounslow controls the road and doesn't see why people who pay council tax to the rival authority should be allowed to buy parking permits. When the scheme is introduced this summer, we will be the only people for miles around who have to leave our cars several streets away and struggle home with our shopping.

Last week I finally got an explanation from Hounslow council: it has decided that it's all Hammersmith's fault for allowing "infill" development - hardly a recent phenomenon as most of the houses were built in the 1930s. Hounslow's objective is "to protect parking provision for the residents of Hounslow", even though the people who live on its side of the street already have off-street parking.

Even my disabled neighbour, Mary Spear, is to lose her parking bay, although Hounslow is prepared to investigate the "implications of changing one of the residents' parking spaces into a bay for Orange Badge holders". Not a very generous offer, given that Mary's arthritis is so bad she can barely walk. Perhaps we could persuade Tony Blair to pop down and make some jokes about this "sad and unfortunate" behaviour by a Labour-controlled local authority?

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