Steve Richards: Gordon Brown faces awkward choices as he stands on the brink of power

Soon the media will shift from stories about the revolt against Blair to ones portraying a divided party
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The Independent Online

For the first time in more than a decade, Gordon Brown is almost perfectly placed. During the darker phases in his political career he would have given a lot for the current situation. The Chancellor is more powerful and popular than he has ever been with the prospect of acquiring even more power when Mr Blair steps down. Yet dreams bring their own complexities.

For the first time in more than a decade, Gordon Brown is almost perfectly placed. During the darker phases in his political career he would have given a lot for the current situation. The Chancellor is more powerful and popular than he has ever been with the prospect of acquiring even more power when Mr Blair steps down. Yet dreams bring their own complexities.

When everything was going badly for Mr Brown he had no choice but to keep his head down. Now his prospects are soaring, but the situation is precariously complex. Oddly, bleak political situations are easier to handle than those that offer the realisation of political dreams.

Much the most explosive post-election news story surfaced in yesterday's Independent. Andrew Grice and Colin Brown reported that senior cabinet members wanted Mr Blair to stand down within 18 months. Their well-sourced report is more significant than the predictable calls from some Labour MPs for Mr Blair's resignation. Angry backbenchers were bound to purge their frustration once the election was safely out of the way. Mr Blair can survive these protestations, but he cannot overcome the loss of support from senior cabinet ministers.

In theory Mr Brown should be jumping for joy at the prospect of pivotal cabinet ministers telling Mr Blair that the game is up. But this is where it all becomes more complicated. Even the relatively short timescale envisaged by some cabinet ministers presents awkward challenges for Mr Brown.

The most daunting is the prospect of a referendum on the European Constitution. I have written before that no one should underestimate the capacity of Europe to reshape British politics. It has destroyed governments in the past and is about to wreak more havoc.

In the current feverish climate in which unfair questions rage about prime ministerial trust, Mr Blair will have difficulty winning the referendum scheduled to be held within the next 18 months. He will not even have the Sun to comfort him in such a campaign; far from it. But it is by no means certain that Mr Brown could win the referendum even as a fresh-faced new prime minister. Mr Brown therefore faces the nightmarish possibly of inheriting a government that had been defeated in a referendum or leading it to defeat in his first high-profile venture as prime minister.

I should add that I am one of a handful of people in the country who believe the referendum is winnable. I will explain why in a future column, but I will not be offering bets on my being proved right. What I know is that a defeat for the Government would be a devastating blow to its authority whoever was in charge. Such a prospect will torment Mr Brown as much as Mr Blair.

Before he gets to that point Mr Brown faces two more immediate problems. Those Labour MPs who are calling for Mr Blair to go are already provoking a backlash from Blairite loyalists. Even Jack Straw, not known as an ardent follower of Mr Blair, has been moved to describe the Prime Minister as a "genius". He makes the more devoted Tessa Jowell seem understated.

The worry for Mr Brown is that before long the media will shift from stories about the revolt against Mr Blair to ones that portray a divided party. To anyone who followed the dying years of John Major's government the dynamic is familiar: an MP calls for a prime ministerial resignation. A prime ministerial supporter fights back. The Prime Minister calls for unity at which point everyone is convinced the party is fatally divided.

Mr Brown does not want to inherit a divided party, especially as it places an even greater burden of expectation on him. Nearly all those MPs publicly seeking a hasty departure for Mr Blair seek the coronation of Mr Brown. They are joined by left-of-centre newspaper columnists, Labour supporters who protested by voting for the Liberal Democrats last week, disillusioned think tanks connected with the Labour Party, trade union leaders and some business leaders.

When Mr Blair won the leadership in 1994, Mr Brown lost out because he lacked a broad support base. No one can accuse him of lacking a base of support this time, but unless everyone calms down he is doomed to disappoint some of those currently anticipating a post-Blair paradise. The current anti-Blair fever will almost certainly subside briefly once Mr Blair has addressed the parliamentary party on Wednesday. Contrary to mythology, Mr Blair is a listener; it is just that when he presided over landslide parliaments he listened more to the media, focus groups and business leaders. Now he must pay greater attention to his own MPs, and I bet he does so. He will be aware of the constraints of the new political situation.

There have been some ominous signs over recent days that he will be awkwardly authoritarian, the botched reshuffle and lack of consultation over the changes, the misguidedly confrontational tone of an over-confident David Blunkett and private briefings that dissenters should come into line or else.

But these were attempts by Mr Blair and his followers to assert his authority, to show that he is in charge. Mr Blair, like everyone else, is finding his feet on new political terrain.

For Mr Brown the terrain is also new. What impressed me most during the second term was how Mr Brown responded when he was less well placed. To revive a famous quote of Tony Benn's, the Chancellor focused on policy, not personalities, making big speeches on the role of markets in public services, mapping out a route towards a popular tax rise for the NHS and on much else besides. When he was marginalised in the build-up to the election, he seemed to spend a lot of time out of the country, in Washington and Africa focusing on global poverty.

In adversity his formidable strength was a relentless focus on policies and the values that underpin them.

He would be well advised to do the same now he is stronger, wait on events and make thoughtful policy-related contributions. On Europe, I am told that he seeks new ways of achieving a degree of consensus with other parties by focusing on economic reform. Recently he has shown a new interest in constitutional reform in Britain. There are also lurking in a Treasury drawer undelivered speeches on poverty.

Mr Brown's future and that of the Government depend more on the context of Mr Blair's departure rather than the precise timing. With good cause Mr Brown seeks a unifying transition. This will require a degree of restraint from his anti-Blair supporters and recognition from Mr Blair that it is in his interests to bow out earlier than planned. On the basis of the past few days, such a transition will not be easily achieved. Even in these heady days Mr Brown might need to book some more therapeutic trips to Washington and Africa.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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