One left the domestic stage long ago to fill the family coffers, the other will soon depart for what he hopes will be a final big job and chance to do some good. Yet even on the day Gordon Brown confirmed his retirement from Westminster, he and Tony Blair still seemed locked in combat.
Admittedly, one can read too much into a piece of coincidental timing, and this renewal of their epic struggle perhaps lacked the grandeur of old. Even so, the synchronicity that led Blair to release his Christmas card on the day Gordon announced his retirement made me smile.
Which is more than posing with Cherie for a yuletide snap did for Mr T. His expression – part open-mouthed bemusement, as if the very last thing he expected to find during a photographic appointment was a camera; part the kind of anguish which wishful thinking sources to a belated realisation of how widely and intensely loathed he is – seemed to say this: “If you thought Gordon had it over me in the demented rictus department, think again. Anything that bastard can do, I can do better.”
That card, which demands another run out at Halloween, will not be landing on the Brown doormat in Fife. Chaps who spent a decade accusing each other of treachery seldom swap seasonal niceties. The cold war between monoliths who were forever going to the brink of Defcon 1 has faded into glacial non-speaking.
Which one truly betrayed the other will probably obsess them until they die. But the line that comes to mind today is taken from a fictional cold war traitor. “Between us,” says Bill Hayden of his ertswhile best friend Jim Prideaux, whom he had betrayed to Moscow, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “we would have made one marvellous man.”
Between them, with their complimentary respective gifts for actorly self-projection and mastering complex detail, Blair and Brown would have made one marvellous politician. Individually, thanks to the addiction to grandstanding of the one, the maniacal lust for power of the other, and the reciprocal disgust that came to stand proxy for conventional government, they made two profoundly flawed politicians.
That is in no way to equivocate between them in terms of size. Second-guessing the judgment of history is an idiot’s game, so I am qualified to predict that history will come to see Gordon as much the more significant man. No one could entitle a novel about him The Ghost, as Robert Harris did with his veiled portrait of Blair. Brown radiated substance.
There has been too much analysis of Gordon as a Shakespearean tragic figure – initially, because he would not become PM; later, because he hadn’t a clue what to do with it when he did – to re-tread that threadbare shtick yet again.
We all know his weaknesses, and how in magnitude they probably matched his strengths, but this is not the time to dwell on those. Today, with all the grating hypocrisy of a writer who ridiculed him savagely for years, I feel nothing but fondness for the old brute.
This is not because he saved the world and later the Union, and made writing columns such fun. It has something to do with his genuine passion for alleviating poverty, here and elsewhere, and a little more with two qualities for which the car seat-stabber who chickened out of calling a snap election will not be remembered: with the ocular problems that almost blinded him in adolescence (and again in Downing Street) and with the loss of his baby daughter, he showed humbling courage and dignity.
But most of the affection stems neither from his humanity nor the innate humility that so was often buried beneath the mechanistic arrogance of the politician. It’s his humanness. Many of us little people stage an unending internal war between the idealised hero we would like to be and the miserable inadequate we actually are. In public, and on a more grandiose scale, Gordon hosted a ferocious scrap between his better angel and his power-crazed demon. If he struck a Faustian pact with himself, at least doing so visibly tormented him and drove him half mad. At least, unlike Blair, he had a soul to sell.
As a reflective Gordon might agree, it was as unprofitable a deal for him as his sale of British gold reserves was for the Exchequer. In return for almost three years of utter misery in No 10, he traded his reputation as the most commanding Chancellor in memory for that of the worst Prime Minister since Eden (the Garden of, that is; going back only as far as Sir Anthony feels too limiting).
In fact, that title belongs to Mr Tony Blair. Whether the gruesome Christmas card visage is a subconscious sign that he appreciates this, we can only speculate. But he now looks like his own Dorian Gray portrait. And while he rampages through mineral-rich sub-Saharan African (South Sudan is the latest recipient of his bespoke take on philanthropy), I wish Gordon - who declines to take his prime ministerial pension - a peaceful Christmas as he contemplates that last huge job in public service. He may only have the second worst forced smile in the world. But having finally won his cold war with the new world number one, he will have the last laugh.Reuse content