It always helps to have a narrative in politics. A politician can struggle through the unexpected if he has a beginning, a middle and an end in mind. This explains the dogged determination of the Chancellor. Sometimes Gordon Brown has a high media profile. Sometimes he is nowhere to be seen. Every now and again he enjoys a triumphant press. Quite a lot of the time he is portrayed as the brooding melancholic of unfulfilled ambition being overtaken in popular esteem by other colleagues. While all this is going on around him, Mr Brown clings to his beginning, middle and end.
The narrative relates most strongly to "tax and spend", the issue that largely lost Labour four elections in a row. It is easily forgotten in these days of landslide victories that Labour lost the 1992 election even though the Conservative government was presiding over a severe recession. After 13 years in opposition Labour was still not trusted to spend taxpayers' money.
Immediately afterwards, Mr Brown made himself extremely unpopular with his colleagues when, as shadow chancellor, he imposed tough conditions on what they could say in public. Any word that could possibly imply a spending commitment was banned, to the growing fury of the shadow cabinet and Labour MPs. His stance then probably cost him the leadership in 1994. Now, nine years after that general election defeat, Mr Brown is spending large sums of money as a Chancellor, with the voters pleading with him to spend some more. He is more or less in the middle of his tax and spend narrative.
Before we move on, it is worth pointing out that Mr Brown's actions on tax and spend do not point to a politician willing to do anything that makes him popular. Yet there is a growing mythology that accuses the Chancellor of becoming a Eurosceptic because of his ambitions to succeed Tony Blair. This is a daft and simplistic argument on several counts. If anything, Mr Brown does not give enough thought to his leadership ambitions when he becomes gripped by policy. In government the Chancellor has alienated senior Cabinet colleagues through his determination to shape the domestic agenda as well as to provide the cash. The walls of Whitehall departments vibrate to the ministerial shrieks of "bloody Brown!". As far as the euro is concerned, it would almost certainly be to his advantage if Mr Blair held and won a referendum fairly soon. In such circumstances Mr Blair would consider his historical mission accomplished and might vacate the throne more speedily.
As it is, Mr Brown has doubts about whether Britain should enter the single currency in this parliament. Almost certainly, his questions are over timing, not about the value of entering at some point. It seems he does not believe that Britain's influence will suffer if it decides against entering in the next few years, as long as the commitment to do so is emphatically restated. In the meantime, he apparently has serious doubts about the viability of the European Central Bank and whether sustainable convergence between the pound and the euro can be achieved in the short term. Assuming these are the current thoughts of the Chancellor, it seems unlikely he will decide that there is, suddenly, a "clear and unambiguous" case for entering the euro within the next two years.
Tony Blair is more torn. It was Mr Blair who insisted that the words "clear and unambiguous" were inserted in 1997 when the euro was kicked into the long grass. This is the phrase that, in effect, gives the Treasury control over the review. Only such a department can be the arbiter of economic clarity and a total lack of ambiguity. In his time Mr Blair has been known to voice private doubts about the euro. He has quoted political friends from other countries who tell him that Britain would be daft to join in the near future. Yet Mr Blair has contrived a situation in which he carries the hopes of the pro-euro camp to such an extent that he will feel under enormous political pressure to hold the referendum. He has said it is his historic objective to "end Britain's ambiguous relationship with Europe". This will only happen when Britain joins the euro. Possibly this would mark the end of Mr Blair's political narrative.
The euro is less central to Mr Brown's narrative. So far, he has raised cash through popular taxes – the windfall tax on privatised utilities – and stealth taxes. These and the overall buoyancy of the economy will see him through his immediate spending commitments. That is why the Treasury was furious with a briefing from Downing Street to a Sunday newspaper last week, suggesting that taxes would have to rise because of the war. The Treasury does not want to use the war as a presentational device to raise taxes. The money is available for the time being. It is in the second half of this parliament or even the beginning of the next that the gaps between spending and income start to become marked. So Mr Brown is preparing the ground for the final phase of the narrative when a Labour chancellor dares to put the case openly for higher taxes to pay for better public services while leaving him enough cash to finance his various anti-poverty measures.
The final phase is not imminent. I doubt if his pre-Budget report at the end of this month will do more than hint at the need for higher taxes – but it will be a pretty broad hint. Polls suggest that while voters want more money invested in public services they continue to have huge doubts about whether it will be invested wisely, especially in the National Health Service. Already this has prompted the Delivery Unit in Downing Street to ask the former CBI leader, Adair Turner, to conduct a review of staffing and pay incentives in hospitals. The Treasury is conducting another review about the long-term financial implications of funding a modern NHS. This is partly to reassure voters that their money will be well spent when the moment comes – the end of the narrative when taxes are raised.
No one knows whether the sequel to this narrative will be "Gordon Brown: the Prime Minister". There is no other obvious contender for the post, and that includes David Blunkett who is being over-hyped at the moment, to his own long-term detriment.
Mr Brown's future will be largely determined by the timing of Mr Blair's departure, and Mr Blair has his own European narrative to complete that places him at odds with Mr Brown. The end of that narrative should have an 18- certificate placed on it right away.Reuse content