Steve Richards: Gordon Brown has revealed his desire to build a new progressive consensus

The Chancellor has revolutionised the way politics is conducted in Britain. He plans for the long term
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The Independent Online

There is feverish speculation over who will be the senior figures in Gordon Brown's first government. Will there be big jobs for Straw, Hain, Miliband and the rest of them when he becomes Prime Minister next year? Will he promote Labour's younger stars? Yet Mr Brown has made the key appointments already.

Yesterday's pre-Budget report was studded with the names of hugely influential figures who have produced reports for the Chancellor on policy areas for the next decade, or who will do so in the coming years. The pivotal figures are Barker, Eddington, Stern and Leitch. They have made policy recommendations on housing, planning, transport, the environment and skills that will impact on all our lives.

They are not alone. Yesterday Mr Brown called on the services of the former director general of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones - a big Brown admirer - to begin another policy review. Meanwhile a highly respected professor will start work on seeking to ensure that Britain leads the way on medical breakthroughs. Welcome to Brown's ministry of all the talents.

Mr Brown has revolutionised the way politics is conducted in Britain. He plans for the long term, a revolution in itself for a country that has been scarred by too much frenzied short term eye-catching initiatives. He recruits outsiders on a grand scale to set the agenda because he recognises that in the dangerous anti-politics culture in Britain those we elect have no authority with the voters.

Much of the media kneels at the altar of business leaders and others, while elected politicians and their parties are despised. In such a culture, how do elected politicians with a faith in the benevolent powers of government change the political climate, persuading voters to accept tough decisions for longer-term benefits? Mr Brown answers the question by turning to those who are not elected politicians.

Yesterday, when the supposedly mighty Chancellor made substantial policy statements, he spoke as a passive recipient: "The recommendations put to us suggest that we should...". Alternatively, he attributed the policies to an independent body: "The review assesses that we need to act." He went further by seeking once more to separate elected politicians from specific decisions. Yesterday he announced hugely significant moves towards creating an independent body on planning decisions.

Even Mr Brown's sternest critics cannot accuse him of being light on detail or strategic vision. Yesterday's pre-Budget report, along with the various reports from Barker, Eddington and company, is a programme crammed with detail. There will be acres of speculation about what Britain under Brown would be like. There is no need to speculate. Yesterday's pre-Budget report is a useful guide.

Mr Brown gives power away in order to exert power. The independence of the Bank of England and the Wanless report on the funding of the NHS are the models. Now Barker, Stern and others legitimise a forward-looking agenda in which Mr Brown can innovate without too many screams from the cynics who mistrust politicians.

Yesterday, the Stern report provided cover for increases in fuel duty and air travel, cover that he will need because there are signs the Conservatives will oppose the moves. Barker offers cover on the need to streamline planning and build more affordable housing. Eddington points to the future on transport. They are shields at a time when voters demand US levels of taxation and European standards of public services.

Stern and company will be joined by many more outsiders when Mr Brown is Prime Minister. In a recent anthology of his speeches - an important book for anyone wishing to understand Brown's thinking on a range of issues - the Chancellor is endorsed by several deified, safely non-partisan figures from Alan Greenspan to Nelson Mandela. Only the Pope was unavailable to express approval.

This is shrewd politics. Under the protective guise of such respected figures, the Government has been given the space to reverse Britain's long-term decline. At a time when the fashion is to attack virtually every move made by this administration, it is worth reflecting on Blair and Brown's historic achievement. They have substantially increased investment in public services while maintaining a stable economy.

I am told the Chancellor is deadly serious about closing the gap in spending per pupil in state schools and those that are privately educated, a potentially revolutionary measure. The fact that he feels there are political benefits in expressing the aspiration shows the degree to which the case for public investment has been won.

This does not mean Mr Brown and his ministry of all the talents have a clear path to a fourth election victory. Public spending will be tight over the next few years. After being in power for a decade, he faces potent claims that some of the money raised for schools and hospitals has been wasted. These claims raise issues about competence. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, gave a politically astute response yesterday, making maximum use of the current problems afflicting the NHS and the off-putting metaphor deployed by Tony Blair in which he suggested Brown would use his "clunking fist" against opponents.

But the Conservatives' position lacks coherence. They are supposed to support the NHS reforms that are causing the short-term problems. They protest about "Brown's cuts" in the NHS, and yet they opposed the original spending increases and are not planning to spend any more than him. They promise tax cuts and yet members of the shadow cabinet make statements that imply massive spending increases. By raising issues where they have no policies, they open doors for Brown. Yesterday, Brown focused on green issues, child poverty, skills and education, but, unlike the Conservatives, he had some substantial policies to accompany the themes.

Most problematic for the Conservatives, they give the impression that the economy is falling apart when it is not and most voters know it is not.

The economy remains Brown's strongest card. At a meeting in Westminster yesterday, Bob Shrum, the US political analyst and Brown ally, pointed out that Al Gore got no credit from voters for the strong US economy when he lost the presidential election. The credit went to the outgoing President Clinton and others. As a chancellor for nearly a decade, Mr Brown will seek to ensure he gets all the credit available, but first he must secure the trust of the many doubting voters. Hence the pivotal roles for Barker, Stern, Eddington and Jones, the contrasting figures who make the first tentative steps towards the formation of Mr Brown's progressive consensus.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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