Alan Watkins: Will Mr Brown get the credit he is due in Mr Blair's retirement speech? I doubt it

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The Independent Online

My friends in what is still called Fleet Street tell me that The Observer newspaper is planning a special commemorative issue to mark the retirement of Mr Tony Blair. In the last century, the papers were forever bringing out "souvenir'' editions to celebrate some event or other in the story of the Royal Family. There seem to be fewer of them these days, though the presses will no doubt be rolling merrily once again with a couple of royal marriages. Similarly, in the holidays, the comics of my childhood would produce a Bumper Fun Number.

I intend no disrespect towards the paper in question, where I spent 17 mostly happy years of my life. Will it say: "Ten Glorious Years?'' Or will it be: "Blair: A Nation Mourns?'' With either formulation, the verdict is more likely to be favourable than not. The Observer has consistently given Mr Blair the benefit of any doubts that may be lying around, though several of its columnists have not. It was among the clear majority of papers to support the invasion of Iraq.

True, Mr Rupert Murdoch's productions, notably The Sun and The Times, have been of even greater comfort to Mr Blair. During the great conspiracy of September 2006 - and, if it was not a conspiracy, whatever it was certainly succeeded in extracting a promise of early retirement from Mr Blair - The Sun implored him to stay on and condemned his critics for their flagrant ingratitude.

Mr Blair may not actually write a column for The Sun, but Mr David Blunkett certainly does; or, rather, somebody else does the writing, while Mr Blunkett confines himself to putting his name to it and drawing his honorarium from Mr Murdoch.

Only the Daily Mail has fallen by the wayside. In the early months of his administration Mr Blair assiduously cultivated the proprietor of the Mail and its editor-in-chief, not to mention several columnists of strong Tory opinions. Alas, the first two of these, respectively the third Lord Rothermere and Sir David English, promptly died. The fourth Viscount and Mr Paul Dacre, Sir David's successor were made of harder materials. At any rate, Mr Dacre was. He resolutely refused to be charmed by Mr Blair.

It was Mr Alastair Campbell who said, not long before the 1997 election: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could get both the Mail and The Sun on our side?'' Well, Mr Campbell duly did, for a time, or Mr Campbell and Mr Blair did; or the two together with Mr Gordon Brown managed it. For in this connection - the relationship with Mr Murdoch (the Mail had long gone down the plughole) - the influence of Mr Brown tends to be forgotten. Mr Murdoch's man-of-business, Mr Irwin Stelzer, is a friend of Mr Brown's, and in his numerous writings has taken to gently teasing the Chancellor. Mr Murdoch's support cannot be taken for granted: that seems to be the message. But come the election, if there is one in the party, in 2007, and as there certainly will be one in the country in 2009 or 2010, the course to true love will be back firmly on the rails.

And Mr Brown has traversed the globe in pursuit of Mr Murdoch, surrounded by executives press-ganged into listening to lectures of infinite tedium or participating in outdoor activities which are liable to result in injury or even death. Or so I am informed.

Mr Blair owes a debt not only to Mr Murdoch but to Mr Brown as well. Both of them have saved the Prime Minister from confronting a difficulty or resolving a dilemma, which is what he never likes to do, any more than most prime ministers do. There was our entry into the euro; and there was the new European constitution.

Mr Blair publicly proclaimed that he wanted to place us at the heart of Europe; or whatever his catchpenny phrase was. At the same time his every action, long preceding the invasion of Iraq, testified to his belief in the Anglo/American alliance. Both sets of convictions were absurd when held simultaneously.

Charles de Gaulle saw this clearly when he rejected Harold Macmillan's application to join the Common Market in 1963. When Edward Heath finally got us in, 10 years later, it was mainly because of his personal relationship with de Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou. But alone of prime ministers since 1945, the old curmudgeon Heath preserved his admirable independence of the United States and paid only one prime ministerial visit to the place, in 1970. How different, how very different, is the official life of our own dear Prime Minister!

Mr Blair's attachment to the United States has been brought about partly by the influence of Mr Murdoch and partly by his rejection on the part of Europe. The one acted and reacted on the other. Mr Brown's famous five conditions on the euro, now long ago consigned to the uppermost Treasury shelf, had not been met. That was what Mr Brown told Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister responded with disbelief. Surely what one did in those circumstances, so Mr Blair said, was to assert that the conditions had duly been fulfilled. As the criteria had been (as they presumably still are) very much a matter of opinion, it seems to me that Mr Blair would have been perfectly entitled to conclude that the examination had been passed. But Mr Brown was having none of it.

With Mr Brown taking Mr Murdoch's side, Mr Murdoch told Mr Blair that he would have to hold a referendum on the euro. The British public would stand for nothing less, and nor would Mr Murdoch's newspapers. There ensued a brief burst of referendum mania. There was supposed to be a referendum on the euro and another one on the European constitution. Europe rejected the constitution first. Both plebiscites trickled into the sand. Mr Blair was content and so was Mr Murdoch. And so too was Mr Brown.

There are other parts of Mr Blair's legacy, as he likes to call it, which are really Mr Brown's policies. Chief among them is the so-called private finance initiative. This consists of charging public bodies huge amounts while private companies make large profits and finally take over the asset involved, with no risk to the private company.

Drawings should be deposited in the patent office, like those of a machine for perpetual motion; for the mechanism of the private finance initiative is remarkably similar in principle, providing as it does a constant flow of money once set in motion.

And so Mr Brown, like Mr Blair, believes in the spread of wealth, except that it is to our great commercial enterprises - water, steel, food, whatever - which happened to be based abroad and are, finally, outside the effective control of the Government.

Is there no consolation for Mr Brown? He has made many speeches on child poverty. I prefer to regard it as the poverty of people who have children. Though I have not read last week's Unicef report apart from what has appeared in the papers, Mr Brown does not seem to have very much to be proud of, except his large number of speeches. Neither does Mr Blair have much cause for congratulation, whatever the commemorative issues may say.



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