Blair should come clean and admit that nobody but Brown will be Chancellor

The prospect of a titanic Blair/Brown exchange on the day after the election is already a destabilising factor
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The Independent Online

With good cause, Labour's election strategists place the economy at the heart of their campaign. They regard this month's Budget as the most important political event in advance of the election. Yet Gordon Brown, the Chancellor who has delivered a stable economy and who will present the Budget, is on the margins of their campaign.

With good cause, Labour's election strategists place the economy at the heart of their campaign. They regard this month's Budget as the most important political event in advance of the election. Yet Gordon Brown, the Chancellor who has delivered a stable economy and who will present the Budget, is on the margins of their campaign.

This is a truly bizarre situation. Those running the campaign suggest that this is a matter for Mr Brown. They seek his full involvement, but he is not a team player. Supporters of Mr Brown point out that he was ejected from his normal role in the team and that they read endless speculation that he will be moved from the Treasury if Mr Blair secures a big victory. As far as they see it this is not the most enticing invitation: come and help me win in order that I can sack you.

All of this is relative, of course. Mr Brown in the margins will still be one of the most prominent campaigners, touring the country, visiting marginal seats, highlighting those policies in the manifesto that he agrees with. He will have an office at Labour's campaign headquarters in London. Yesterday afternoon there was a meeting of the party's top election team. The Chancellor was one of only a handful of ministers in attendance.

Unavoidably, he is a big player. But this is nothing compared with his dominance of the 1997 and 2001 election campaigns. On both those occasions he chaired the election planning meetings and the daily press conferences. He also had a much bigger role in drawing up the manifestos for those earlier campaigns. This time, when the Cabinet held its first meeting to discuss election tactics, last December, Mr Brown was out of the country.

Already there are mutterings among Labour MPs and other prominent supporters of the Government that Mr Brown's strategic skills are being underused. These concerns are voiced by some that are more supportive of Mr Blair, but recognise that Mr Brown is the most formidable strategist in the Government.

To some extent this was an inevitable sequence of events: "Brown sidelined ... Election campaign in trouble ... help! ... Where's Brown?" So I should point out that Labour's early campaign is not going as badly as some have suggested. Polls still point to a substantial victory.

The recent criticisms of Labour's macho attacks on Michael Howard and its accompanying reminders of the ERM crisis in 1992 were misplaced. In the mid-1980s the Conservatives attacked Neil Kinnock with a relentless brutality and never lost an opportunity to revive memories of the winter of discontent. I recall Conservative-supporting newspapers echoing the attacks and the non-Conservative press agonising over whether Labour could ever rule again. When Labour does the same with Mr Howard and the Conservatives' past, it is deemed wholly unacceptable.

I also have no doubt that if Mr Brown were running the current campaign there would be severe mutterings against him. There were plenty of criticisms of the Chancellor in 2001: "He s too cautious ... He needs to be more radical." It is the fate of those in charge to get attacked when the campaign falters. Mr Brown is getting plaudits partly because he is not in charge.

Even so, Labour's campaign would be hugely boosted if he played a central and enthusiastic role. Not only has he delivered two landslide general election victories. He also turned around the election campaign for the first Scottish parliament in 1999 that was going badly for Labour.

Mr Brown has an instinctive sense of what is necessary to win elections. Almost more important he knows what is not necessary. During the 2001 campaign he was under considerable pressure from Mr Blair and others to rule out increases in National Insurance contributions. The Conservatives and some newspapers were taunting Labour over this issue. But Mr Brown knew that if he wanted to increase spending on the NHS he would need the option of putting up National Insurance. He resisted the pressure and Labour still won a landslide. The subsequent tax increases paid for the additional investment in the NHS, a central feature of Labour's current campaign.

Although the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown is beyond repair, there is a single objective that binds them together. Both of them want to win big at the election. I am told authoritatively that speculation that Mr Brown is hoping for a much smaller majority - so that he is better placed to challenge a more vulnerable Prime Minister - is wrong. As one of Mr Brown's allies put it to me, this would be the equivalent of pro-Europeans hoping for the economy to collapse in the hope that this would make it easier to persuade voters to join the single currency. Mr Brown wants another landslide victory. If he becomes Prime Minister, he would be better placed then to win a fourth term.

Some anxious Labour MPs ask why Mr Brown has not dissected the Conservatives' tax-and-spend plans if he is so keen for a landslide victory. Apparently the Brownite dissection will take place at around the time of the Budget, when the economy moves centre stage. On this it is a matter of timing rather than Brownite reluctance. Mr Brown will erect once more his famous dividing lines over economic policy when the time is right.

But there are tensions between Mr Blair and Mr Brown even over their common objective of a landslide victory. Mr Blair hopes a big election win will be seen as a triumph for his leadership and style of politics. Mr Brown wants the victory to be regarded as a vindication of his economic management. Mr Blair seeks to be in a strong enough position to contemplate the removal of Mr Brown from the Treasury. Mr Brown hopes to fight the type of election campaign that makes him indispensable as Chancellor.

The prospect of a titanic Blair/ Brown exchange on the day after the election is already a destabilising factor. Yet there is a relatively easy way of dealing with it. Mr Blair should announce at some point in the next few weeks that he would be delighted if Mr Brown were to continue as Chancellor if Labour wins a third term.

Those words would calm everyone down in the build-up to the election and its immediate aftermath. They also make sense. Mr Brown does not want to be Foreign Secretary. Mr Blair would not like working with Mr Brown in the Foreign Office, where the two of them would need to talk frequently on matters that Mr Blair had made his own. There is no obvious successor to Mr Brown as Chancellor. Mr Brown would be a more powerful advocate for the European constitution as Chancellor than as a grumpy Foreign Secretary.

There would also be a neat symmetry. Mr Blair has broken with convention by announcing his attention to stand down during the third term. He could do so again by stating in advance of the election that his old friend would still be Chancellor in the event of a victory, the two of them together to the end.

s.richards@indpendent.co.uk

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