Mark Seddon: Gordon Brown may never become Prime Minister

History may record that his political career mirrored that of the Tory chancellor 'Rab' Butler
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The Independent Online

Inside the "Westminster beltway", Tony Blair is resurgent. Like Houdini, he has escaped yet again. John Prescott's infamous tectonic plates have ceased moving, and Blair used his speech to Labour's national policy forum in Warwick over the weekend to full advantage, warning against any schisms orchestrated from the now diminished ranks of the left. Actually, that is not what he said; the spin doctors said it for him. But you get the drift.

Inside the "Westminster beltway", Tony Blair is resurgent. Like Houdini, he has escaped yet again. John Prescott's infamous tectonic plates have ceased moving, and Blair used his speech to Labour's national policy forum in Warwick over the weekend to full advantage, warning against any schisms orchestrated from the now diminished ranks of the left. Actually, that is not what he said; the spin doctors said it for him. But you get the drift.

The heightened security around the Warwick University campus confirmed Blair's quasi-presidential role atop of a party that can no longer imagine anyone else leading it. Security was noticeably more lax for the rest of the Cabinet, who had hunkered down for some white-knuckle negotiations with the trade unions over what should be in the next Labour manifesto. Gordon Brown talked of "mutuality, solidarity and co-operation", and pressed all of the right buttons - but, in truth, the white flag has been run up the pole. For all that Tony Blair is a conservative leader of the Labour Party, there is, now, no alternative.

The distinct possibility is that Gordon Brown may never become prime minister, a tragedy for the Labour Party and a missed opportunity for the country. Instead, history may yet record that his political career mirrored that of the hugely successful, and modernising post-war Conservative chancellor, "Rab" Butler.

Butler deputised for the ailing Churchill, but later his skilled economic management was rewarded by Harold Macmillan's succession as prime minister in the aftermath of Anthony Eden's disastrous foreign venture in Suez. Butler subsequently found himself exiled to that political Siberia known as the "leader of the House". When his chance came again in 1963, Macmillan and the men in dark suits engineered a succession hailed by Harold Wilson as "a victory for the grouse moors", if not the persecuted grouse, in the shape of Alec Douglas-Home.

Yet the post-Attlee era was defined by a phrase that has a resonance today. Then, as now, there was little to substantially differentiate the Tories from Labour. The rise of "Butskellism", an amalgam of Butler and Gaitskell, not only demonstrated that consensus; it confirmed the success of R A Butler in acclimatising the Conservatives to Labour's post-war welfare state.

Gordon Brown has deliberately passed up two opportunities to stake his claim to the top job. The first came in the aftermath of the death of John Smith, when he probably realised that his victory could only come about through a bloody campaign, and earlier this summer as Labour received a drubbing at the polls in the European and local elections. On both occasions, there were plenty of people willing him on, and yet on each occasion he averred.

It is not enough to ask the question: "Does he really want to be Prime Minister?" The answer is obvious enough. The question for Brown is, like much else, one of prudence. It is: at what cost to the party, and what for? For if there is a major difference between the two Downing Street neighbours, it is that Gordon Brown actually likes the Labour Party and navigates its highways and byways with dexterity. For Blair, the quintessential outsider, the party is, at worst, an encumbrance, and at best a useful vehicle.

And why would Brown, the best supply side economic manager since RA Butler, want the job - unless he has a secret plan to back out of Blair's Faustian pact with the Washington neo-cons and ally himself with the European social democratic consensus? Given the Chancellor's current enthusiasm for more flexible labour markets, the extension of the private sector into the public domain and his silence over Iraq, we must keep guessing.

Brown's sound economic management is increasingly juxtaposed with Blair's unpopular foreign ventures, and a raft of poor election results. And yet the huddled ranks of middling MPs from middling constituencies, for want of anything else, have decided to stay with Nanny to the election - and beyond. There is logic to this - Labour's recent election results have been appalling, but for Michael Howard they have been even worse. The Government is still ahead in the polls, and even in a general election that is likely to be remembered for its low turnout, Labour is still set to win. Tony Blair may be less popular with the public than the party he leads - but a majority of his backbenchers wonder who, or how, anyone else would be able to poach Tory ground and reach as deep into "Middle England" as Blair has done.

Few have even begun to think of what happens when Tony Blair is finally pushed or decides to go. "Time to skip a generation" say some of his supporters, in an aside to Brown. But what would a David Miliband or a Hillary Benn, or any of the others whose names occasionally pepper conversations, inherit?

Labour's membership has crashed by half from 400,000 in 1997 to 200,000. Those who remain are older and less active. The party is withering on the vine. Few will return while Blair is leader. Sadly, whoever succeeds may well be left with the wreckage of a once great, progressive, social democratic party.

SeddonZQ1@aol.com

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