The best of neighbours in Downing Street

Donald Macintyre on the key relationship

Related Topics
It remains the most important friendship in British politics. In and out of each other's offices every day since the middle of the 1980s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have an ideological outlook and mutual understanding so deep that it's sometimes difficult to decide which of them thought of which idea first.

The relationship between Prime Minister and Chancellor, First and Second Lords of the Treasury, is always a complicated one. Some of those around Ken Clarke, for example, left office with the clear view that tensions between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are built into the system: their relationship was better before, and has been better since, they lived next door to each other in Downing Street. But the intimacy and frequency of the contacts between Brown and Blair works in a way intended to get around that problem; Whitehall officials have been struck, and a little alarmed, at how often the pair meet without civil servants. The result is something that is less an institutional relationship between Numbers Ten and Eleven Downing Street, and more that of old friends - albeit for a brief but momentous period rivals - who know each other extremely well and who can and do endlessly discuss in complete privacy the great issues of government and how to tackle them.

Nevertheless the Clarke-Major relationship, and before it that of Lawson and Thatcher, showed what an independent power base within the Cabinet a strong modern Chancellor can have. The one real scoop in the recent Channel Four documentary Bye Bye Blues was an interview with the former Tory chairman Jeremy Hanley who described how, not once but twice, Clarke commanded a majority of the Cabinet against a minority which included the Prime Minister. On the first occasion Clarke forced through a decision in favour of his increasing VAT of fuel, only to be subsequently defeated in the Commons. On the second, Clarke successfully resisted the funding increase sought by the then Education Secretary Gillian Shephard. When the issue was forced to a vote, the majority went with Ken Clarke, even though John Major backed Mrs Shephard.

So it would not be surprising if, on those occasions when Blair and Brown do have differences, Brown sometimes got his own way. (A recent, if entirely internal Labour Party, example is the case of the selection of the candidate to fight the Paisley by-election. Gordon Brown conducted a formidable lobbying operation on behalf of Douglas Alexander, who is now the candidate. He will almost certainly be a first class MP. But another able candidate, Pat Macfadden, who works in the Prime Minister's policy unit dropped out after at least one meeting between Brown and Blair.) Still, on most of the big issues, the Prime Minister has chosen his ground carefully, and has eventually got his way. There are two important examples from before the election: Brown didn't get his new top tax rate of 50 per cent; and Blair insisted on matching the Tories' pledge to have an EMU referendum - even though Brown had at one period proposed making the manifesto commitment of support for the single currency sufficiently strong that the election itself would have provided a mandate to take Britain in.

Which helps to put the hot issue of the day in perspective. A spate of newspaper stories - the latest of which appeared yesterday in the Daily Mail and Glasgow's Herald - have predicted EMU entry in this Parliament. This has looked awfully like Brown's allies seeking to force the pace on the timing of British entry (though it could also be an attempt to talk down the job-threatening level of the pound). But whether or not Brown wants to go faster than Blair, all the signs are that the Prime Minister is still extremely wary about the timing of a referendum.

You can talk to ministers who will say that the momentousness of the risk is over- estimated, and even that the Government could come back from a defeat in an EMU referendum. That isn't, I suspect, quite how the Prime Minister sees it. Before he and Robin Cook announce plans for the British EU presidency at the beginning of December, he and Brown will surely have agreed a statement confirming that the UK will not enter EMU on January 1, 1999, but that it intends to do so do when the conditions - including the Europe-wide prospects on jobs - are right for British entry. For Britain to retain influence in the EU, while being outside EMU, that will have to be pretty convincing to Britain's partners. But the timing is another matter.

Of course a referendum before the next general election is possible. So is putting an EMU pledge in the next general election manifesto. But a referendum after the next general election is likelier still. There are ministers who say the Prime Minister would not want a referendum this side of an election unless he could persuade Rupert Murdoch's newspapers to drop their still vitriolic opposition to EMU. Whether or not that's true, public opinion will take time to turn round (not to mention a few prominent Cabinet sceptics like Jack Straw.) The Conservative Party - admittedly without Clarke and Heseltine but with Michael Portillo and Margaret Thatcher - would be galvanised, spoiling for the fight. Television would have to give equal time to both sides. Defeat might be highly unlikely, but it would be catastrophic.

For whatever siren voices say to the contrary, the Prime Minister would indeed be betting the ranch; it's hard to see how a government could come back from a referendum defeat on something so fundamental and win the second term Blair so badly wants - never mind the impact on Britain's future in the EU: forget about EMU membership for a generation.

The Brown-Blair relationship is at the heart of the Government's success. No-one knows better than Blair how indispensable a motor of modernisation Brown is. Probably these issues will all be settled in the ebb and flow of constant and comradely discussion between the two of them, well away from the spin doctors. But while Brown may be as strong as Clarke, Blair is not John Major. If it comes to it, Blair will not be for bouncing.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Move from Audit to Advisory

£45000 per annum + benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Move from Audit to Advisor...

Management Consultancy - Operational Research Analysts

£35000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: You must ...

Secondary Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This outstanding Secondary School...

Application Support Analyst (MS SQL, java based webserver, batch scripting)

£36000 - £40000 Per Annum On call allowance.: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor’s Letter: Britain's sexism

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back

Nigel Farage
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?