Better to remain a double act

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The Independent Online
THE GREAT task for political leaders is to show us the way. They have lost many old powers of direction and choice. But there remains the power of eloquence, of weaving a social vision that helps people to make sense of their lives. That is a formidable thing, which opens up new possibilities. Margaret Thatcher had it. And it is what Tony Blair was reaching for this week. Rightly: for it remains the key to political breakthrough.

Mr Blair has already been attacked as weak, lacking in ideas, a media confection. But it is becoming ever clearer that his Christian socialism, with its relentless insistence on social obligations, is not only strongly held, but is a message that others, in these uneasy times, may be ready to hear.

Consider the following extract from his speech on crime this week: 'It is in the family that we first learn to negotiate the boundaries of acceptable conduct and to recognise that we owe responsibilities to others as well as ourselves. We then build out from that family base to the community and beyond it to society as a whole. The values of a decent society are in many ways the values of the family unit . . . We do not show our children respect or act responsibly to them if we fail to provide them with the opportunities they need, with a stake in the society in which they live. Equally, we demand that respect and responsibility from them. That is the principle of social solidarity . . .'

It seems a long time since a politician of the left spoke in such simple, value-laden terms. Those sentiments would not have surprised any of the first generations of Labour leaders. Mr Blair's social morality may sound like some of the things right-wing moralists spout, but it leads in the opposite direction - to more government action, not less; to less competitive individualism, not more. The danger for Conservatives is not that Mr Blair has no ideas, or can be moulded by image-makers; it is that he has such simple ideas, and hasn't been moulded.

That does not prove the case for a Blair leadership victory. As one senior Labour man said yesterday: 'You need an electable party as well as an electable leader.' The man who has done much of the detailed policy work that underpins the party's modernisation drive is Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, and Mr Blair's closest political friend.

He hasn't yet found a language that reaches beyond the party. But on the economy, social policy and political reform, Mr Brown has worked through many of the positions that Mr Blair adheres to. The two have grown up together intellectually, their arguments are often interchangeable; but their political personalities are complementary, and dissimilar.

That, basically, is why the 'modernising' wing of the Labour Party is mesmerised by the prospect of Mr Brown standing against his friend. Apart from the human story - friendship grappling with ambition - this has become a real political thriller. The air around the Shadow Chancellor's office is thick with angst and introspection: Achilles in his tent had nothing on this. Mr Blair's people fear that a contest would undermine both men, forcing them to distinguish themselves in increasingly personal terms and challenging the party to make an unreal choice. Mr Brown, though, is surrounded by young, mainly Scottish, enthusiasts, urging their hero to seize his destiny, whispering that he is being shabbily treated, that history will not wait. But for him, the polling evidence, in Scotland and outside, is unpromising. It must be agonising.

Into this drama, came the coup de theatre of Margaret Beckett, whose announcement that she would enable the deputy leadership to be contested along with the leadership both surprised and confused her colleagues. What did she mean by it? Was it an act of great selflessness? Mr Blair and John Prescott, the likeliest challenger from the left, have considerable mutual regard and some Labour MPs were talking about a deal that would give the latter the deputy leadership, and the central campaigning role he has always coveted. That would put pressure on others to avoid a contest. Then again, perhaps Mrs Beckett was signalling that she will stand for the leadership, opening up a general contest.

Many Labour MPs believe a contest would be, on almost any terms, good for the eventual winner and good for Labour as a whole. It would expose the candidates to cross-questioning and rough treatment, ensuring that no one got the job untested.

But there is a difference between such a contest, and one which ruptured the close relations between the party's two most eminent modernisers. Rancour is already apparent among their followers. Brown supporters have been phoning round trade union executives, and trying to kick-start a Scottish bandwagon - without conspicuous success. Such tactics are derided by Blair partisans as undemocratic 'old Labour' behaviour - husky phone calls between barons. This is just one of the hundred ways a gap could open between them as they fought it out over several weeks. As one shadow cabinet member observed: 'May God save them both from their supporters.'

A further complication is that some of people talking up a leadership bid by the Shadow Chancellor are doing so for dubious motives. Left-wing MPs are almost salivating at the prospect of a Brown-Blair split. 'This is a wonderful opportunity for the left, really huge in its implications,' said one, who wants Mr Brown to go forward.

We have already seen an attempt to enlist Mr Brown, as opposed to Mr Blair, as a true 'full employment' man. The phrase is used by almost all Labour politicians as an aspiration, something to be striven for through better education and supply-side measures, but in the context of a macro-economics that is cautious about higher taxes and inflation. But it is also used more specifically by the left as a code for a neo- Keynesian policy of higher borrowing and state-led expansion.

The minute the Shadow Chancellor realised that some people were trying to co-opt him for the latter policy, one he has successfully opposed for years, he went nuclear. Having endured a lot of unpopularity to get Labour off the devaluationist, high-taxing, spendthrift kick, it must have been a little irritating to be recruited and promoted by those he had defeated.

But it was yet another small warning signal of what may lie ahead. In any contest, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will be misrepresented by their friends and prised apart by their enemies. The former will be under pressure to moderate his moral language; the latter will be under pressure to go easy on economics and the trade union link. Both insist that they will neither fudge nor bend. In which case, what is the point of them fighting one another as well? If they are still trying to find the way through, they will do it better in the future, as they have in the past, by doing it together.

(Photographs omitted)

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