John Rentoul: Forget John Reid - after a slight wobble, Gordon Brown's position is even stronger

Whoever takes over will gain a lift from the simple novelty of not being Tony Blair
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How wearying that John Reid's response to the alleged terrorist plot should be seen as a leadership bid. This is not because the Home Secretary has no further ambition, but because he is a shrewd political operator and knows that he would need 45 Labour MPs to nominate him in the party's leadership election.

That is a stiff test and others are still better placed than he is to pass it. Others who have a better claim to the qualities that Gordon Brown lacks, namely those of being laid-back and English. Because of the requirement to secure the public support of one-eighth of Labour MPs, if there is a candidate against Brown when the day comes, there will be only one, and it is still unlikely to be Reid.

So if Reid appears to have taken over the Government while the Prime Minister is away, this may be not because he wants Tony Blair's job, or John Prescott's, but because a lot of people are queuing at airports worrying about hand luggage and expecting the relevant minister to explain what is going on. You hardly need an ulterior motive to explain why the Government might prefer to have Reid rather than John "Crap" Prescott take on that task.

The implication of some of the coverage - that, in the event of a terrorist scare, the Home Secretary should avoid the television cameras - is bizarre. It is yet another example of our no-win media: Reid tries to take visible control of the situation and he is accused of furthering his leadership ambitions; Reid heads for the beach leaving Tony McNulty in charge and he is accused of, er, heading for the beach leaving Tony McNulty in charge.

The real story of the Labour succession that has unfolded over the summer is quite different and completely unreported. It is that Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, who is still the person most capable of mustering the support needed to stand, let alone win, has failed to make as much progress as he might have done.

Reid may be Blairite in his ideology, but Johnson is more Blairite in his approach - light of touch, with the ability to surprise, and capable of holding together a wide coalition. He also has an advantage in that he will be asking Labour MPs to nominate him for the deputy leadership in any case. As the favourite to succeed John Prescott, he is well-placed to run (as Prescott did) for both the leadership and the deputy leadership.

But the Johnson plane, rising into the clear skies of the early summer, hit turbulence on two almost-accidental fronts. Last month, he volunteered - as evidence that he was not engaged in "class war" - that he had tried to help a constituent's child to go to a private school. "I don't think it is betraying the human race to send your child to a private school," he said.

But this attempt to spring a New Labour surprise backfired when The Sun reported it under the headline: "Labour: We are failing school test". It said "the new education supremo effectively admitted state schools are failing millions of bright youngsters".

The next day, Johnson made a speech in which he said marriage was "not for everyone", and offered the apparently harmless truism: "Our focus should not be on whether people marry or not, it should be on the welfare of the child, and the quality of the upbringing."

The Daily Mail went bonkers: "Minister sneers at marriage and the 'traditional family'". Melanie Phillips was wheeled in to address the puzzle of "Why Labour despises the family" - an interesting question that she sadly failed to answer. It seemed that the press was not squared, or the middle classes all prepared, for the possible next prime minister.

Therefore, the big story is that Gordon Brown's position, after a wobble, has strengthened again. This reflects not only the weakness of Mr Johnson, but also that of David Cameron.

As Michael Brown pointed out in these pages yesterday, the Conservative leader - although he has yet to hit real turbulence - does seem to lack thrust. His plane has taken off, but it seems to be struggling to gain height.

The Tories' mini-manifesto, the Built To Last document, revised and reissued this week, is already showing signs of metal fatigue. It essentially offers much the same priorities as those of the Government: economic stability, first-class public services and social justice. That is not necessarily a criticism. As Danny Finkelstein, the former head of the Conservative Research Department with some experience of how to lose elections, told me yesterday, part of the Conservatives' problem is that they have not been good enough at saying things with which everyone can agree.

But it does give them a peculiar problem in fighting a Labour Party about to change leader. Yet when David Cameron tries to be different from Labour, he runs into trouble. He says he is against "high taxes", even though he puts "fiscal responsibility ahead of promises to cut taxes". But any attempt to be specific about which taxes will be cut and what public spending will be cut to pay for them will create potential losers as well as gainers.

And Cameron's green policies are an electoral trap waiting to be sprung: the only ways to cut carbon emissions are to make cheap forms of energy (electricity, gas, aviation fuel) expensive, or to force people not to use them. The words of a Downing Street adviser at the start of this year ring in my ears: "He can have his windmill on top of his house and we'll have Crawley and the north Kent marginals, thank you very much." Labour's majority in Crawley is 37.

Gordon Brown has his negatives, and a problem with opinion polls that suggest he would drive more voters to the Tories than he would attract as leader and prime minister. But I suspect that when the change happens, the dynamics of opinion will change, and whoever takes over will gain a lift from the simple novelty of not being Tony Blair. He (because I do not think it will be Margaret Beckett - she has had a go) will be continuity with the things that people like about the Labour government and change from the things that they do not.

If Brown takes over, he will say something like this: "The purpose of the reforms, whether it is schools, or health, or pensions, is not just to reform but it is for a purpose, and the purpose is to make our society fairer, to make it more equal in the opportunities it gives and to ensure that people can access the best public services irrespective of their wealth and based on their need."

Those, in fact, were the (unreported) words of Tony Blair, at his monthly news conference in Downing Street earlier this month. If another Labour prime minister said them, people might just hear.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

The writer is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday

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