John Rentoul: Brown is no Blair - and that could lose him the election

The PM let his supporters believe there was an easy alternative to Blairism. And he is paying the price
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The Independent Online

The Blairites are not crowing. Oh no. Or saying, "I told you so." I have spoken to some of Blair's most loyal lieutenants who have been inundated by media requests for interviews – more than 200 in one case. Would they like to speak about the election timing or the Pre-Budget Report? No, they would not. They know that their interviewers are interested in only one story: Blair says Brown is useless.

Because if anyone close to the Quartet's Middle East envoy says it, it will be assumed that the envoy thinks it too. That may be wrong. Some of the envoy's friends are frustrated by his reasonable and indulgent tone when talking of his successor. I do not think that there is any doubt that Blair blames Brown for forcing him out earlier than he wanted, but he seems reconciled to his fate and, with his ability to "concede and move on", wants Brown to succeed.

It is with bitterness rather than satisfaction that the Blairites observe the Prime Minister's troubles. "My god, can you imagine," asked one of them, "what would have been happening if it had been Blair dithering over an early election like this?" The level of hostile briefing from Brown's people would have been terrible, it is said. Not that anyone thinks Blair would have made such a mistake. Indeed, one of the Blairites' complaints about Brown is that he is not the master strategist of Labour legend.

The last-minute shying-away from a snap election and the tricksiness of the Pre-Budget Report were disasters. The enduring image of the week is that of Brown sitting behind Darling as he delivered his statement, unable to stop grinning, as if it was all terribly clever.

It was not; it was damage limitation of the most obviously cobbled-together kind. If Brown really were the grandmaster of the political chess game, he should have seen George Osborne's conference speech coming. Stephen Byers did. He suggested abolishing inheritance tax a year ago, only to be dismissed as a Blairite "Tory" in private and ticked off by Brown in public in the Financial Times.

What is most piquant about last week, though, is that it illustrated the truth of the maxim that the Labour Party is always looking for someone new to betray it. It has not taken long for The Guardian's columnists to turn. On Monday, Jackie Ashley wanted whoever organised Brown's visit to Basra during Tory conference to go to Iraq and stay there. On Tuesday, Fiona Millar, hammer of Blair's academy schools programme, was furious that "nothing has changed" under Brown (she is right – and what an important thing that is). On Wednesday, Jonathan Freedland said Brown's "less than candid" reason for not having an election was that "he wants to set out his 'vision'. Well, get on with it then: you've certainly had long enough to work it out."

But the real vitriol came from Polly Toynbee on Friday. She was furious at the cut in inheritance tax. "The backbenches sat through Darling's politics-free performance on Tuesday like the Animal Farm beasts gazing through the farmer's window in the final scene." Brown had ended all hope of social democracy in this country, and "when Cameron threw 'phoney' at him in Prime Minister's Questions, it stuck like napalm".

Perhaps it is a measure of the limits of Blair's success that the reformist centre-left argument has made so little headway with such large swathes of the Labour Party and its house journal. But it is even more a measure of Brown's cowardice that he allowed the guardians of the liberal-left conscience to think that a Brown government would tack in their direction the moment Blair had gone. Theirs is not the only route to social justice – but Brown has barely touched on the argument that academies are the best weapon against educational disadvantage. Or said that there are better ways of skinning the progressive tax cat than death duty starting at £300,000. Or that following the prescription of Ashley, Millar, Freedland and Toynbee is the surest route to electoral defeat.

And so, paradoxically, he risks electoral defeat. When Brown took over, the anti-war left vote that had stayed at home or gone to the Liberal Democrats came back to Labour. Now – already – it may go back into its sulk, complaining that he is no better than Blair. The truth is that he is worse, because he lacks that effortless sense of identity with the concerns of families with people carriers.

Brown faces a more formidable opponent. This is, as the BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, observed, "a moment of maximum danger for Tory modernisers". David Cameron's party may take the lesson of the last fortnight to be that a traditional tax-cutting message works. Not so: the tax cut worked only because it was balanced – by tax rises (on foreigners) and by green, liberal and compassionate policies. But I think that Cameron, after a wobble this summer, understands this and will not be driven off course.

In which case Brown is in trouble, and the fears of the Blairites that he would not be able to win against Cameron may darken the skies over the next 18 months to two years. Already some of them are war-gaming what might happen if Brown appeared to be leading his Party to defeat, which for these purposes probably means a hung parliament. Because the other effect of Brown "flunking" – Cameron meant funking – "an election because he thought he was going to win it" is to change the balance of advantage among the rivals to the succession. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has been the under-the-bus option ever since he was the last candidate to rule himself out of a contest with Brown for the leadership in May. If anything happened to Brown now, my guess is that Miliband would be Prime Minister. That position has now been strengthened, because his nearest rival, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools , takes a lot of the blame for the election fiasco. When asked in a radio interview during Labour conference if Brown really would take the risk of an early election, he gave a clever answer: "It's a very interesting question as to where the gamble really lies." That does not look so clever now.

Miliband will not thank me for saying so, but the real effect of the turbulence of the past two weeks has been to bring forward the date of the next time that he will be asked to consider a bid for the top job.

Further browsing: Stephen Byers's call to scrap inheritance tax