One of Mr Gordon Brown's recreations - perhaps his only recreation - is said to be Scottish football. There was a time when it touched my life as well. This was early on Saturday evenings when, the tea things having been cleared away (by my mother, naturally), my father would check his football pools, with the wireless placed specially on the sideboard to facilitate this task. Laying down his fountain pen, usually with resignation, though sometimes with elation, he would say:
"Duw, Duw (God, God, but sounding more innocuous in Welsh), Cowdenbeath managed a draw with Queen of the South. Where, I wonder", he would muse, "is Queen of the South?"
I confessed myself unable to enlighten him on this point.
"And Patrick Thistle. Where is that?"
Here I could be of more use. Indeed, I sometimes think that at this period, immediately before the onset of adolescence, I was at the height of my powers and have been in a state of fairly continuous decline ever since.
"It's in Glasgow, Dad. And it's Partick Thistle, not Patrick."
He ignored this correction in a way that would have done credit to the Chancellor himself and went on:
"You can't be right, mun. Celtic and Rangers are the Glasgow sides, just as Hearts and Hibs are in Edinburgh. That much I do know."
Again, he was as definite as Mr Brown would be. But, unlike Mr Brown, he knew when he was going to retire and exactly how much his teacher's pension would be. Though stories appear virtually weekly in the papers to the effect that deals have been struck, accommodations made, understandings arrived at, the Chancellor is still uncertain about his future.
Politicians are commonly interested in only two questions: the identity of the next leader of their party and the date of the next general election. The first of these questions is now otiose for all three parties. Mr David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell have only just been chosen as leaders; while after an initial flurry in the market on behalf of Mr Charles Clarke and Dr John Reid (and, before them, of the now ludicrous figure of Mr David Blunkett), there is no further argument about the succession of Mr Brown.
Its timing is, obviously, tied to the timing of the election: so both questions - indeed, all questions - merge. It is a thoroughly unhealthy state of affairs which has the additional disadvantage of being tedious, except to those most intimately involved. But it has been brought about almost entirely by Mr Tony Blair through his perhaps deliberately contradictory promise both to resign before the election and also to serve a full term, whatever that may turn out to mean.
Sir Simon Jenkins, as he likes not to be called - why, in that case, accept the title in the first place? - has argued in The Guardian that the Tories would be well advised to keep Mr Blair in office for as long as possible. Increasingly discredited, scandal succeeding scandal, he would help Mr Cameron by staying put.
The trouble with this approach is that it is not up to Mr Cameron to decide when Mr Blair is to take his leave. In theory Mr Blair's Cabinet colleagues could do it: but most of them, so far from telling a Prime Minister to go, are too timid to look for a mouse under the sofa. Likewise the party conference, in reality the trade unions, could pass a card vote calling for a leadership election to be held: but the party has never jettisoned a Prime Minister and only one leader in George Lansbury. In practice the decision will be Mr Blair's.
There is a substantial case - in the party's interest, not his own - for him to stay where he is, for the time being, at any rate. There seems to be a universal assumption that we are halfway through a Parliament. In fact we are only 10 months away from the last election. The next election does not have to happen until June 2010. If Mr Brown takes over, there is every likelihood that the Parliament will run its full term.
True, in 1955 Anthony Eden succeeded Winston Churchill in early April and went to the country in late May: the election could have been held in autumn 1956. But Eden had very little choice in the matter. He was generally considered to have no knowledge of domestic affairs. The election date was chosen for him by Central Office before Churchill's departure. But he put up the Tory majority.
Alec Douglas-Home succeeded Harold Macmillan in autumn 1963 and called the election a year later. This Parliament went a full term. Home surprised everybody by coming within four seats of Harold Wilson's Labour Party.
Similarly, in 1992 Parliament had gone virtually the full length. John Major had become Prime Minister a year and a half before the election. He produced one of the most unexpected successes of modern times. Whether it came about through John Smith's redistributive shadow Budget, through a suspicion of Neil Kinnock or through the first Gulf War, it was still a triumph for Sir John, as he then wasn't.
In short, there seems to be an optimum point for a Prime Minister to create a favourable impression. It seems to happen after he or she has been in office for a year to a year and a half. Clearly there is no absolute rule about these things. Margaret Thatcher had to wait two years for the Falklands War to save her. Though she was not exactly popular afterwards, she kept winning elections none the less.
What people do not seem to realise is that what has happened to Mr Blair is equally likely to happen to Mr Brown, once he reaches No 10. It has not happened to him already, not because he possesses a unique moral authority or supreme political skill, but because he is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Under our constitution, Chancellors are a protected species. Of recent incumbents, John Major was anonymous and Norman Lamont unlucky. But the rest of them have been treated with something approaching reverence, endlessly deferred to, flattered and indulged.
Listening to the interminable studio discussions last Wednesday, looking at the interviews with citizens seemingly plucked off the streets, dipping into those newspaper supplements on the next day, I wondered whether we were not all of us participating in a ritual as meaningless as Trooping the Colour.
Mr Brown may well be on his horse for some years yet. And I still do not know where Queen of the South is.Reuse content