Leading Article: Blair-Brown split that never was

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TONY'S in a jealous rage - says conventional wisdom. Gordon is in the driving seat; he is the real Prime Minister. The wall that separates Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street is plastered with suspicion and papered with rivalry. So say the pundits, and what else - after the general enthusiasm at Gordon Brown's Budget on Tuesday - do right-wing commentators have to go on? It's the birth of Brownism, they cry, though Tony stayed his hand over Individual Savings Accounts and Tony is the real friend of the middle class.

It is certainly true that the two derive from different political traditions and that their instincts incline them to different audiences. Where Blair really does have a feel for Middle England, and is at home with the Home Counties, Brown is a Scottish Labour man. The Chancellor is steeped in Labour culture, so that it has coloured his mind and emotions: the Prime Minister has hardly been dunked in it for longer than the average teabag.

But no two politicians are identical. These two, at least, spent years engaged in a strikingly intimate political conversation about modernisation: and it is the fruit of that conversation, not their earlier political education, that drives Blair and Brown's New Labour. Brown's Budget was an instalment on the social market project fashioned jointly with Blair in Opposition.

To reports of petty remarks by one man about the other (or, more likely, by their staffs) the response has to be this: rivalry between Chancellor and Prime Minister is virtually built into our constitution. Number 11 has been filled several times before now by men who had been pipped for the leadership and still harboured ambitions. Think of Jim Callaghan. If Gordon Brown is now convening policy seminars in his front room, is that so very different from Callaghan's picking of Nuffield College's finest brains in the mid-Sixties or Lord Lawson's think-tanking in the late Eighties? Farther back still, Hugh Dalton did not relinquish his membership of the Fabian Society on becoming Chancellor, nor his ambition to succeed Clement Attlee. It would indeed be abnormal, and probably unwelcome too, were Gordon Brown not to have his eye on the main chance.

The interesting question is whether he and Tony Blair do differ either in philosophy, approach or tactics. And here the evidence is compelling. They not only share the same big picture, but complement each other skilfully day to day. If we ought to label Gordon Brown's antecedents more obviously "socialist", there is nowadays nothing identifiably more left-wing about his beliefs. Together they accept the limits to government action to "manage" an internationalised economy; they believe that labour-market reform is the key area for policy; both see how, notwithstanding the historical allegiance British business has shown to the Conservatives, it can be Labour's working partner.

It's handy to present Mr Brown as a dour Presbyterian who believes everyone holds their salvation in their own hands and that, in the modern, secular world, emancipation comes through earned income, meaning a job. He does think this. But every part of that code is shared by the almost-Catholic Prime Minister, especially the belief that collective action (government) retains a key role even in an individualised world. Its job is to help people on their way towards realisation of their personal and family ambitions. For neither man is the death of class rhetoric a painful loss.

It long ago dawned on Tony Blair that Labour could never win a general election without a specific and consistent effort to reach out to "Middle England", to those conveniently if narrowly defined as readers of the Daily Mail. These people had to be wooed, flattered and above all reassured; their repugnance at Tory failure would not be enough by itself. This project Tony Blair has made his own. Having won the election, the need to keep this constituency on side has not diminished: it explains much of Mr Blair's body language and rhetorical flourishes and perhaps goes some way to exculpate him from the sin of sharing a far too narrow bed with Rupert Murdoch. The phrase is "giving cover". Tony Blair gives his Cabinet colleagues more political space than they would enjoy by themselves - not covertly to engage in acts of socialism but to get on with the task of capitalist management the Government has set itself. This is exactly what Gordon Brown has enjoyed, thanks to the Prime Minister. Whether the Blair analysis about Middle England is correct is debatable, especially in the light of recent poll evidence in favour of genuinely redistributionist tax policies. As a tactic however it makes a lot of sense. It may even suit this government's purposes to read a stream of stories about Blair-Brown splits - the good cop, bad cop routine gives them both room for manoeuvre. Which is the best reason why we should be suspicious of such stories. These two men may not love each other but as a political team they have lately been formidable.