Dominic Lawson: At least when Major's government fell out it was over real issues, not just personalities

Brown is not going to disown the Iraq war, and he is umbilically tied to the public service reforms
Click to follow

What was it again? Oh, yes: "There's nothing that you could ever say to me that I could ever believe." Those, you might recall, were the words that Gordon Brown said to Tony Blair on the last occasion that the Prime Minister welched on a deal to resign in his favour. I was responsible for serialising the book - Brown's Britain, by Robert Peston - in which that gloriously definitive cry of anguish appeared. I remember being electrified - especially by the repetition of "ever" - when I read in proof form the devastating remark attributed to the Chancellor.

My only anxiety was: would Brown disown those words, once they appeared in public for the first time? I was assured that he would not. But on the Saturday evening we went to press there seemed to be a touch of cold feet among the Chancellor's outriders - Gordon himself was mysteriously elusive in the whole business. The phrase was right, yes, of course it was; but could we please not turn it into the front-page headline? If we did, Gordon might be forced to deny that he ever used those words. (One of the characteristics of New Labour, by the way, is that its spin doctors have never seemed to mind what is in the text of an article, just so long as the headline says what they want it to say. They do not have an exalted view of the attention span of the British public.)

Of course we went ahead and printed the killer quote as a gigantic headline across all eight broadsheet columns. And of course Gordon Brown, in every sense a man of his word, did not disown the remark. The Prime Minister, however, after some initial befuddlement suddenly recalled that Brown had never said such a thing to him. I mean, why would he?

He would, because during Blair's black mood early in 2004, as the Iraq war began to turn from triumph to disaster, the PM had finally confirmed what Brown had always thought was their original deal back in 1994: that he would not fight three election campaigns as leader. But moods come and moods go. And so, on the pretext that Gordon was "not being helpful", the deal was off - again. That, at least is the view from Number 11. It certainly explains the ferocity with which Mr Brown's supporters are now demanding that Mr Blair gives their man a specific date, preferably in writing and signed by several witnesses.

It is almost pathetic to witness the prime ministerial wriggling as he attempts to come up with yet another ambiguously worded undertaking, when ambiguity is the last thing his party wants - or will accept. You must admit, he does have a problem. While Mr Brown's supporters claim that any specific date actually written down in a letter between the two men will, naturally, remain private, Mr Blair knows that it would become known to the parliamentary lobby correspondents before you could say "removal van". Then there really would be no getting out of it.

But I can't seriously believe, after all that has gone before, that Gordon Brown will be satisfied with a purely verbal understanding ; to adapt Sam Goldwyn, he knows that such an agreement with Mr Blair is not worth the paper it isn't written on.

John Prescott is right - and those are four words that you don't often see in sequence - when he says that the public mudslinging between the Blairites and the Brownites is extremely dangerous for the Labour Party. Prescott is from the generation of Labour politicians who endured four successive Parliaments of opposition. But now two thirds of the Parliamentary Labour Party are men and women who have never sat on the opposition benches. They remind me, in their insularity and insouciance, of the Conservative backbenchers during the mid 1990s: despite the Tories' weakness in the opinion polls, the idea of a Labour government still seemed to most of them incredible. And so their battle for power was purely an internal Conservative affair - which began to strike the general public as rather rude. Was it nothing at all to do with what we might care about?

Members of the present Cabinet often talk about the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher and her replacement by John Major as a dire warning for the Labour Party of how not do to it. In a way they are right: her defenestration caused internal wounds to the Tories which only now seem to have been healed. But in a way they are wrong: John Major instantly abandoned the poll tax, far and away Margaret Thatcher's biggest political blunder, and in so doing appeared to make a clean and tangible break with the immediate past.

It is not, however, clear what Gordon Brown could, or would, do to demonstrate that he is more in touch with the public than his predecessor. He is not going to disown the Iraq war. He is umbilically tied to the current public service reform package - Blair was not merely being mischievous when he described Brown this week as "New Labour to his fingertips".

Yes, I am sure that Gordon Brown will attempt to re-establish Labour's reputation for morality in public life by dismantling the links between party funding and preferment. Yes, there will be a great proclamation about a new constitutional settlement preventing the country going to war without the express consent of Parliament (as if that wasn't always the case in practice). But is that really going to galvanise people outside London SW1?

The Labour government is not by any means as low in public esteem as the Conservatives were by the end of the Major years, it is true. But at least when John Major's administration fought itself into exhaustion, it was, in the end, over an issue of some significance: Britain's future in the European Union. What can the public discern as the issues which are causing the Labour Party to descend into factionalism?

There aren't any; save one - which of two men is to have the pleasure of holding the highest office in the land. It appears to be about pure ambition, which may indeed be the stuff of politics, but will confirm the most cynical view that "they're only in it for themselves". Combine that with a Deputy Prime Minister who disgraces his office (or at least the floor of it) without rebuke, and you have a recipe for public contempt - which, to be fair, was exactly what William Hague forecast would be the fate of New Labour.

Mr Hague did not, however, foresee that there would be three more leaders of his party before the Tories got to the stage when they might be able to see the Promised Land. Nor could he possibly have foreseen that the leader in question would mark the turning point with a speech criticising British Home Stores for selling "padded bras and sexy knickers" to pre-pubescent girls - which it stopped doing over three years ago. But we should not deride David Cameron. He is a lucky politician, and good luck is the greatest of all attributes for a leader. Mr Blair's has finally run out.