By some unaccountable oversight, I was not invited to the dinner at the Granita restaurant in Islington when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made their famous pact. Neither were 60 million other people, some of whom were not even born at the time, yet this private agreement between arch rivals is still being treated as if it were the Treaty of Versailles. I mean, who made Tony Blair king and decreed that he could anoint his successor?
Even the Queen doesn't get to do that. Come to think of it, she and the Prime Minister find themselves in similar positions, wearily surveying their heirs presumptive - and presumptuous. New Labour tore up Clause IV a long time ago, but members are still supposed to have some say in who becomes leader.
Appearing strained and tongue-tied, the Prime Minister had sufficient common sense on Thursday to apologise for the extraordinary behaviour of some of his MPs and ministers - not that it had much effect, as Charles Clarke's intervention demonstrated less than 24 hours later. This isn't surprising, because the seeds of destruction were sown as long ago as 1994, when Blair met Brown and agreed to what I have come to think of as the Granita convention. If Blair had known then what he does now about the Chancellor's chronic hesitancy, he could have safely told Brown to challenge him for the late John Smith's job. Instead, Blair seems to have acquiesced in the notion that he would step down at some point in his premiership and Brown would succeed him.
The Chancellor's increasingly open air of entitlement has, in recent years, become an affront to the democratic process. I'm not the the only Labour voter who wants a leadership contest, not a coronation, and I wish those ministers who have publicly endorsed Brown would bear that in mind. Their candidate has said nothing about the crisis in Lebanon, supposedly because he was on paternity leave; he's also said next to nothing about the invasion of Iraq. He is as closely associated as the Prime Minister with the failures of New Labour and in some instances, notably education, his tight grip on the purse strings is a direct cause. So what is he offering and when will he deign to tell us how he intends to break with the Blairite past?
This is not the subject that's transfixing the Westminster village, but it damned well should be; the longer Brown's silence continues, the more it seems reasonable to ask whether he is the Princess Diana of British politics, wasting his talents and energy on nursing a sense of grievance. The closer he gets to power, the more people question his fitness for it, and those MPs who are now calling for an "orderly" transfer of power to the Chancellor seem to me to be driven by a combination of panic and self-delusion.
"In my beginning is my end," T S Eliot wrote in East Coker. This leadership crisis is an archetypal New Labour mess, born out of long-standing and arrogant assumptions about power. Why should the Chancellor expect the party or the electorate to go along with a private agreement he made 12 years ago? How dare Labour politicians lecture other countries about democracy when they are so contemptuous of it themselves? The Prime Minister has done enormous damage to Labour through his catastrophic foreign policy, but he could redeem himself by endorsing the absolute necessity of a proper contest for his successor. He should know that there's no such thing as a free dinner, and that power is already shifting towards David Cameron.Reuse content