Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

It's all very cordial now, but Blair and Brown need to talk about the future
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair breezed into Gordon Brown's office at the Treasury on Tuesday, startling officials who were not expecting him. The Prime Minister was in the building for a meeting with Sir Michael Barber, the outgoing head of his Delivery Unit, and decided to pop in for a chat with the Chancellor about his Mansion House speech the next night.

On the face of it, it was just like old times. New Labour's two founding fathers shared a cramped office after entering parliament in 1983. As they rose up the political ladder, they occupied next door offices on the Shadow Cabinet corridor, when Mr Blair would often pop in to ask Mr Brown's advice about his next speech or policy announcement.

It certainly looked like old times during last month's general election, when Mr Brown's "shoulder to shoulder" support for Mr Blair provided the prop he desperately needed. Relieved Blairites now regard as the campaign's pivotal moment the Chancellor's public statement that he would have done the same as Mr Blair in Iraq. They are not sure it's right, but they know it was critically important for him to say it.

All, however, is not quite what it seems. The Prime Minister and the man who will inevitably succeed him have perfectly cordial conversations about the here and now: the Chancellor's speech, driving home the need for economic reform in Europe, dovetailed with Mr Blair's necessarily more conciliatory address to the European Parliament the following day. The relationship is infinitely warmer than a year ago, when it went into deep freeze after Mr Blair, in Mr Brown's eyes, reneged on a promise to stand down before the election. All the same, a nagging doubt has entered Mr Blair's mind and it is growing: Mr Brown, while happy to co-operate on day-to-day matters, seems wary of discussing the medium- and long-term issues the Prime Minister wants to resolve before he leaves No 10.

Tony wants a "chat" with Gordon about pensions, council tax, a final round of public service reform (centred on schools) and next year's government-wide spending review. He would also like, before he departs, to "sort" energy (whether to opt for more nuclear power) and defence (updating Britain's nuclear deterrent). So it would be good to talk about those too.

Yet Mr Blair finds Mr Brown reluctant to engage on these sorts of issues. It is as if they were having a tennis knock-up at Chequers: Mr Blair lobs a friendly ball over the net, but nothing comes back. The question worrying Mr Blair is: why?

Could it be that Mr Brown wants him out tomorrow? Despite the election show of unity, is he going to block what Mr Blair wants to do in the hope he gets so fed up that be packs his bags? Or is it simply that he wants to tackle all these difficult issues his way?

The Blair camp hopes that Mr Brown will soon play ball. But if he remains neutral, allies say, Mr Blair will tackle the thorny issues without him - as he did by drawing up five-year plans for key government departments last year when relations between them were frosty. "Tony is not going to just tread water," said one cabinet minister.

The uncertain mood in No 10 puzzles those in No 11, who say Mr Brown is simply getting on with his job. The current agenda is being shaped heavily by Britain's presidency of both the G8 and European Union. Reviews on pensions and council tax will report later this year and Mr Brown sees no point in pre-empting them. One ally put it revealingly: "They have different approaches. Gordon likes to pore over all the evidence from all the angles before making a decision. He doesn't believe in saying 'right, let's have a meeting today and sort out incapacity benefit'."

Friends say Mr Brown is certainly not "agitating" against Mr Blair. He has no need to. He can be surer than ever that he will inherit the crown. The only question - and it is still a big one - is when. The Brownites were happy enough when Mr Blair quelled calls for him to quit by promising an orderly transition. If Mr Blair outstays his welcome, mainstream Labour MPs, the trade unions and the media will probably give him a shove towards the exit door.

Mr Brown may yet have to give Mr Blair a prod too. Ultra Blairites, partly out of self-interest, say their man can carry on until 2008. Some Brownites hope he will quit in the autumn of next year. So 2007 would be a natural compromise.

The sand is running quickly through the hourglass, and Mr Blair is in a hurry. Despite the dominance of Europe and the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 10 days, he is energised about the domestic agenda on which he promised to focus after winning his third term. In a progress-chasing session on Monday, for example, he restlessly demanded more action from some Whitehall departments.

Having taken the unusual step of imposing a time limit on his tenure, the Prime Minister will inevitably not complete all his unfinished business. The sensible approach would be for Mr Blair and Mr Brown to have a very long chat and tick boxes about the issues to be sorted before and after the handover. Both men would have to make compromises. But the Government works best when they work closely together and it would be good for the country.