Alan Watkins: Brown is too good to be a Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

Mr Gordon Brown has had a good press, as he usually does, even though separate fissures are already beginning to appear between him and Mr Tony Blair, Mr Alan Milburn and that latest addition to the polity, Mr Derek Wanless. But irrespective of how Mr Brown's proposals for the future of the health service turn out, has he, I wonder, ever thought about the future of Chancellors of the Exchequer?

Of the 11 Prime Ministers since 1945, only four had been Chancellor: Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, James Callaghan and John Major. None of them had been specially successful in the job; some of them, indeed, might be classified as outright failures.

Churchill brought us back on to the gold standard, provoked J M Keynes's pamphlet The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill and was, indirectly, one of the causes of the 1931 crisis. Macmillan first supported the Suez operation, then panicked when the Americans refused to support sterling. "First in, first out," the Tories gibed, which did not prevent him from succeeding Anthony Eden. Lord Callaghan's reign led to the devaluation of 1967. To his credit, he tried to resign, but Harold Wilson persuaded him to stay. He enjoyed happier times at the Home Office and then the Foreign Office, before being elected Wilson's successor. Mr Major's great achievement at the Treasury was to take us into the exchange-rate mechanism of the EMS, from which we were ignominiously expelled after he had become Prime Minister.

Chancellors who did not become Prime Minister include Stafford Cripps, Hugh Gaitskell, R A Butler, Reginald Maudling, Roy Jenkins, Iain Macleod, Denis Healey, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Kenneth Clarke: a rather more impressive collection than those, Churchill excepted, who served as Chancellor and then became Prime Minister. Not only do inadequate Chancellors tend to become Prime Minister: more, politicians who were outstanding Chancellors are then excluded from No 10.

Death or illness can play a part. Cripps was already ill when he was succeeded by Gaitskell and died in 1952. Gaitskell became leader of the Labour Party but died in 1963 and was succeeded by Wilson. There are those who believe he would have won in 1964 as Wilson did, or by a more comfortable majority. I am not among them. I suspect Gaitskell would have said something silly that would have lost the election.

Obviously this cannot be proved one way or the other: any more than it can be demonstrated that Macleod, who died after only a month in office, would have succeeded Edward Heath in 1975. I suspect not. In the two previous Tory contests he had failed to reach the starting gate.

This was not true of Butler, who was passed over in 1957 and 1963 and could have been a plausible candidate to succeed Churchill in 1955. He was treated shamefully by the party establishment. But I am not sure that the backbenchers ever really wanted him. As John Morrison, the then chairman of the 1922 Committee, put it: "The chaps won't have you." In the early 1960s the chaps seemed to prefer Maudling. But in 1963 he was carefully excluded from the succession and two years later was defeated in the first Tory election by Heath.

Edmund Dell, the former Labour minister (and former Communist), wrote a book about postwar Chancellors and pronounced Lord Howe the best of the lot. He would clearly have made a better Prime Minister than Mr Major or, for that matter, than Lords Heseltine and Hurd. Instead he had to content himself with clearing the way for Mr Major by bringing down Lady Thatcher. Lord Lawson believed that she thought of him as a rival, which was why she tried to cramp his style. Mr Clarke's painful story is too recent to require retelling at this point.

Lord Jenkins was a highly successful Chancellor, in Lady Thatcher's opinion the best since the war. In March 1974 either he or Anthony Crosland should have been made Chancellor by Wilson. Instead he appointed Lord Healey, who for 30 years had trained himself rather to be a Labour Foreign Secretary. In 1976 he lost to Lord Callaghan and, in 1980, to Mr Michael Foot. By 1983 he had retired from the ring and Mr Neil Kinnock was the new champion.

Mr Kinnock was to fight the 1992 election on a tax policy which had been thought up largely by John Smith, whose "Shadow Budget" helped Labour lose that election. How anyone ever thought that calling somebody earning over £22,500 a year "rich" without losing votes defies belief. It is now said not only that times have changed but that popular attitudes have changed with them. According to this hopeful view, people are prepared to pay more tax for better services, in particular for a better health service. Well, they may say they are willing. In practice they jib: particularly if the service has not improved noticeably as a result of their additional contributions. There is also a lot of talk about insurance, compulsory or not. Insurance is the infallible method of unjustly enriching both the insurer and the provider of the services which will have to be used when the insured contingency occurs. Any fule kno that.

A few years ago, like Lord Finchley in the Belloc poem, I tried to mend the electric light. It did not strike me dead, which was Lord Finchley's fate, but the antique table I was standing on collapsed, though happily I was uninjured myself. I visited one of the stately antique shops of Islington – as another poet writes, how beautiful they stand! – and told the man what had happened and asked how much it would cost to have the table repaired.

"Insurance job is it, squire?" he asked.

When I told him No, he said he was not interested. With some difficulty, I eventually had the table repaired somewhere else.

The market in repairing bodies rather than tables does not operate in quite the same way. Here it is completely dominated by the insurance companies. We have all heard of the extortionate charges that are imposed as a consequence: to sticking plaster £49.30p, to cotton wool £26.20p.

A friend of mine who was covered by insurance went into a private London hospital for a minor operation which required a night's stay. Having unpacked her bag, she asked how much the room cost. A functionary performed a rapid calculation and came up with: £423.10p.

"But I could stay at the Ritz for less than that," she said, repacking her bag and setting off home.

I hope Mr Brown exhibits a similar resolution when faced by demands to involve reluctant British citizens in the medical insurance racket. Whether this will do his own prospects any good is another matter.