Courting the Brothers is a risky game for Brown

Blair wants a public distance from the unions - because he still fears the electoral damage it may bring. Brown on the other hand, wants to keep friendly. He knows that members' votes will count in any future leadership bid.

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On Tuesday afternoon in Glasgow, Gordon Brown will receive thunderous applause from delegates to the TUC. Surprising, perhaps, for one of the main architects of New Labour - a philosophy not naturally in tune with the Brothers. Brown's reception will be in sharp contrast to last year's bash in Brighton, at which Tony Blair's speech was greeted like a bad smell. Blair's self-deprecatory jokes and poems met bored silence. Brown's equally feeble puns - probably about his newly-wed status and post-endogenous growth (nudge nudge) - will provoke gales of hilarity.

On Tuesday afternoon in Glasgow, Gordon Brown will receive thunderous applause from delegates to the TUC. Surprising, perhaps, for one of the main architects of New Labour - a philosophy not naturally in tune with the Brothers. Brown's reception will be in sharp contrast to last year's bash in Brighton, at which Tony Blair's speech was greeted like a bad smell. Blair's self-deprecatory jokes and poems met bored silence. Brown's equally feeble puns - probably about his newly-wed status and post-endogenous growth (nudge nudge) - will provoke gales of hilarity.

But both men will be happy with their differing treatment. Even after all this time, Blair wants a public distance from the unions - because he still fears the electoral damage which undue chumminess may bring. Brown on the other hand, wants to keep friendly. He knows that members' votes will count in any future leadership bid. Even without a vacancy at No 10, his grassroots popularity will help him to stay at the Treasury after the election. Brown still has a long way to go if he wants to challenge Lloyd George for the tenure-at-No-11 prize. The Welsh Wizard lasted more than seven years as Chancellor: the Scottish Scrooge has not yet had even four.

Tony Blair has never made a secret of his alienation from the horny-handed end of the Labour movement. He doesn't even bother to sweeten the pill when the Honours List comes round. In sharp contrast to former Labour prime ministers, Blair has given one only serving union boss, Sir Ken Jackson, a knighthood. As for peerages, they are doled out like water to boardroom bosses - but with the retirement this year of Lord MacKenzie and Lady Gibson from the TUC's General Council, there are now no serving Barons among the barons.

Meanwhile, despite Gordon Brown's inextricable linkage with New Labour, the Chancellor is starting to become something of a pin-up in union circles. Partly this can be ascribed to roots. As much as they feel out of tune with Blair, union bosses warmed to his predecessor, John Smith. It was Smith - with promises of enhanced worker rights for all from day one of employment (ditched by Blair) - who persuaded the unions to give up their block vote at Labour conference. They trusted Smith to put workers before bosses. And who was John Smith's sidekick? Why, his fellow Scot and shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, of course.

But there is more to it than that. While Blair has made "the big tent" as open as possible, Brown has been more careful to play to the gallery of Labour's working-class heartlands. The policies - even the principles - are the same, but the way in which they are finessed is subtly different. Take Blair's repeated appeals to "the many not the few". Tony declares a vision of New Britain as a place of opportunity for all. But like the old "good cop, bad cop" routine, while Tony tickles "the many", Gordon lays in to "the few", putting some meat on the mantra with his attack on élitism in Oxford University's admissions. The Laura Spence case was a golden opportunity for Brown to hone his core-vote credentials and he seized it with both hands. The shocked criticism from the likes of Lord (Roy) Jenkins, the university's chancellor, played well with the party faithful who still despise the SDP turncoats.

Another Brown success was the Comprehensive Spending Review. With more money poured into public services, observers could only gaze and admire as this man, who had spent most of the past three years painting himself as the prudent skinflint, suddenly emerged as a reborn Santa. Gordon delivered bucketloads of cash to many of the unions' favoured recipients. Many, but not all. Pensioners, in particular, felt aggrieved by the miserly 75p increase they received this year, and had expected the Comprehensive Spending Review to remedy the lapse - perhaps restoring the pensions link to earnings rather than prices. Brown got the blame and was worried that the TUC and the Labour conference would turn on him. So now we hear of second thoughts. Expect the Chancellor to make up for his stinginess to this "heartlands" group in November. A £5 boost to the weekly pension would be no surprise.

Now, whispers are dripping out that Gordon is fighting Tony over post-election middle-class tax cuts. Tony wants them, apparently. Gordon prefers to spend on the poor. Stories like this, carefully planted in the Mail on Sunday, can only improve his standing among the members.

So, with their champion before them, what will the unions want to hear from the Chancellor? The shopping list begins with a massive boost to the minimum wage, currently set at £3.60 an hour, rising by a paltry 10p next month. But many unions, led by the largest, Unison, want a level more like £5. The minimum wage debate has been scheduled for Tuesday afternoon - straight after Brown sits down.

Then there's Europe. Brown's speech will be preceded by a lengthy debate on the single currency. T&G boss Bill Morris is gamely trying to water down his fellow barons' euromania but most unions, led by the AEEU and the GMB, are still keen on early entry. Delegates will be seeking some clarity on Brown's famously vague five tests.

Next, privatisation. Unions want an end to it - and its close cousin the Private Finance Initiative. Finally there is public-sector pay. Scottish workers have recently brought their country to a halt with strikes for more cash. The same is being threatened south of the border.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Brown will offer the unions nothing from this wish-list. Like Blair last year, he will instead probably restrict himself to listing the worker-friendly policies - minimum wage, New Deal, rights to union membership, equality for part-timers, which Labour has already enacted - and boast about the drop in unemployment. But unlike the PM, he will be cheered for these achievements. Union leaders will leave the hall declaring themselves well satisfied with the way the Government is going.

All of which can only help the Labour Party - now £2m in the red - in the run-up to the election. Labour needs the unions' cash, and if duping the paymasters into believing that goodie Brown and baddie Blair are at war is the price Labour must pay to get the cheques, then so be it. As far as Tony is concerned, Gordon is welcome to commit the party to the goal of full employment - so long as he does not actually say what it means.

But there is a danger for Brown if he goes too far in courting the core vote by hinting at a cabinet battle. It may come true. The last person to outshine Blair in party popularity was Mo Mowlam. Look what happened to her. Chancellors are supposed to be lightning conductors for party discontent - taking the flak away from No 10, not diverting it there. A chancellor who becomes more popular than his boss can find - as Nigel Lawson did - that he is not as "unassailable" as he might think. If Brown becomes a threat to Blair, he should expect no mercy when - thanks in part to Mo's decision to walk - a reshuffle becomes inevitable the day after the election.

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