John Rentoul: When the PM talked of 'people skills', was he possibly referring to Mr Brown?

He is never going to be fluent in intuitive body language
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One day soon, said Chris Evans to the Prime Minister last week, "you will cease to be the man here at No 10 and the job will fall into the hands of someone else". Did Tony Blair have any advice for his successor? Don't let "the media stuff" get you down, was the gist of his answer. No doubt Gordon Brown will be suitably grateful for the tip. One of his claims to the top job is that he has endured, at least. He has put up with "media stuff" by the bucket load, including, nine years ago, Blair's advice, conveyed by the media, to get a grip on his "psychological flaws".

The Prime Minister was in expansive mood with Billie Piper's ex-husband. He happily chatted about what kind of job he would like after being prime minister. Something with a "real life purpose", he said, patronising everyone with a job not quite so filled with significance as leader of a medium-sized post-industrial nation. But he also drew attention to the fact that what he does next year will not matter so much, on this scale of life-purposiveness, as what Brown does as the new prime minister.

Evans mischievously sought other leadership tips from Blair by asking whether he read books on body language. No, said the Prime Minister, he relied instead on "your basic intuition", and declared that politics "is a people business". Sometimes Blair's banalities approach satire, although this one may have had an edge. Because the Chancellor's people skills are the big political issue for the coming year.

This does not necessarily mean what everyone thinks it means. Brown is never going to be fluent in intuitive body language in the way that Blair and David Cameron are, and it would be a mistake for him to try. He should take comfort from the fact that such skills carry the risk of being seen as hammy and insincere. Charles Kennedy once told me, when he was a member of the club of party leaders, "we are all actor-managers." But there is another model of the successful democratic politician, recently overlooked in this country because its two best-known practitioners did not succeed - but for reasons unrelated to their public personas. John Smith and John Major were both exponents of the straight, slightly boring but trustworthy style - and it is a style that has won four elections in a row for John Howard in Australia. It could work for Brown - if he gets the other components of leadership right.

The question for the next prime minister is not whether he has an easy manner on television, but whether his reputation for being difficult to work with will stop him from running a government of all the talents. Three days after the September coup that forced Blair to put a 12-month limit on his time in office, Brown was asked by Andrew Marr if he were ready to lead the country. "I'm ready to make the decisions for people, and to work with other people to make this country the great country it is at all times," he said. Leave aside the bizarre syntax of an ambition to make Britain as great as it already is, this was a clear confession of past sins of less than total collegiality.

The sincerity of his recantation will be tested in the coming months and, above all, in the first few decisions he makes when he finally takes over. That is going to be a strange and decisive moment in the politics of 2007. It will come after a deputy leadership election, which is an unpredictable affair. With Brown as the only nominee for the top job, a campaign in which Hilary Benn, Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman and Jon Cruddas contend to be his deputy hardly sounds like an opportunity for party renewal. Postponing the contest on grounds of unnecessary expense, which has been mooted by some MPs, and which would leave the derided John Prescott in place, hardly looks a more invigorating prospect.

Yet the certainty of Brown's succession is already imposing strains. The jockeying for position in the new administration reached a new pitch of seriousness several months ago. The fault lines under the future Brown government are spreading, many of them around the pre-eminence in the inner circle of Ed Balls, Brown's chief adviser for the past 14 years and now a Treasury minister.

One of the tests of Brown's ability to "work with other people" will be whether he is prepared to give David Miliband, Secretary of State for the Environment, one of the great offices of state, namely Chancellor or Foreign Secretary. That would also fulfil another promise he made to Marr: "And I'm ready, I think, to help this country move into its new generation."

I am told, however, that Brown has no intention of raising Miliband up, and that he continues to regard him as more of a threat than a promise. Miliband's championing of green taxes, far from being welcomed as a necessary response to David Cameron's environmentalism, is regarded as unhelpful.

It is true that Miliband cheeked the Chancellor in a speech 10 days ago. Few noticed, because it was on the day Blair was interviewed by the police and Lord Stevens published his report on the death of Diana, but Brown will have been one of those few. Miliband said a new "golden rule" was needed "to ensure we do not mortgage the futures of our children in an unsustainable ecological debt". (The Chancellor's golden rules are one of his most useful sound bites.) And Miliband repeated his demand to use taxes and regulations to raise the price of carbon so that market forces would suppress the CO 2 emissions that cause climate change. "This means leading the economy, not just managing it," he said. Ouch.

That may annoy Brown, but Miliband is in a strong position because he is right. Like John Reid at the Home Office, he is staking out policies that Brown cannot ignore. Even more irritating to Brown, no doubt, is that Miliband remains the best answer to the question increasingly asked in Westminster, "Who will be the Labour leader after Brown?" But that should be all the more reason for Brown to hug him close rather than to push him away.

The first few days of the Brown government could define the contest for the next two or three years. That does not depend on Brown's mastery of presentational tricks, but on his ability to persuade the voters that he can work with people. He has to convince us that he can get the policies and the people right.

That should mean taking the environment seriously and promoting young talent beyond the inner Brown circle. Just because this advice is from next door and trite does not mean it is wrong - don't forget that politics is a "people business".

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