I could still be prime minister, says Brown

Future leader of the nation, or classic case of might-have-been? For now, the Chancellor must content himself with stealing the limelight in Eastbourne: Despite being betrayed by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, the Chancellor is still ambitious, writes his biographer Paul Routledge

Paul Routledge
Sunday 11 January 1998 01:02

GORDON BROWN stood bareheaded in the bitter cold outside a municipal crematorium in Glasgow. It was March last year and we were paying our respects to Jimmy Airlie of the engineering union, who led the celebrated work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. Brown stood outside the tiny chapel among the barrel-chested powerbrokers who got him where he is. That was when I finally decided to write his biography. I wanted to know what kind of man refuses to pull rank, what kind of Chancellor he would make, why he wasn't leader of the Labour Party.

JAMES GORDON BROWN was born in Giffnock, Glasgow on 20 February 1951. His father John was a Church of Scotland minister in nearby Govan, the industrial heart of the Clyde. Three years later, the family moved to Kirkcaldy, on the Fife coast. Gordon attended the local primary school, learning to write on a slate. He was part of a specialstream of children given intensive schooling at Kirkcaldy High. He passed his Highers (the equivalent of A-levels) soon after his 15th birthday. But others failed. In an essay written soon afterwards he wrote: "I thought continually of how it could have been for these young guinea pigs, how the strain of work, the ignominy and rejection of failure could have been avoided." He saw the problems of the local people trudging through themanse parlour. Here are the origins of his social conscience.

He went to Edinburgh University at 16. A kick on the head on the rugby field almost blinded him. He lost the sight of his left eye, and had operations to save the right. He still has to use large print for speeches.

Brown took a first in history: his tutor said his papers were the best he had ever seen. He became the second student Rector of his university in 1972, forcing open the campus government to student representation.

His social life was not exotic. His flat was notoriously scruffy, and he panicked at prospect of visits from his mother. Brown is a private, shy man. He pretended he did not have girlfriends, but his mother once left a pair of girl's knickers on top of his washing, and Gordon spluttered: "I don't know how they could have got there." They both knew. His girlfriend was the "Red Princess", Margaret of Romania, who loved him but finally ditched him because "it was always politics, politics, politics, and a girl needs nurturing".

Brown lectured at Edinburgh and in Glasgow, but he went quickly to Scottish Television as a producer, working chiefly on consumer programmes. Meanwhile he cultivated his contacts in the unions and the Labour Party and stood unsuccessfully for Edinburgh South in 1979. In 1983 he pulled the nomination for the safe seat of Dunfermline. He soon won a place on Neil Kinnock's front bench and in 1992 moved up to Shadow Chancellor when his mentor John Smith took over as leader.

In the Commons he shared a windowless office off the main committee corridor with the MP for Sedgefield, Tony Blair. They became very close politically - so close that, according to Brown's closest advisers, a secret pact existed between them. In the event of a leadership contest called in the circumstances of John Smith's death, they would not split the modernising vote by running against each other. Brown would be the candidate.

That understanding was blown apart by the machinations of Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool and Labour's chief spin doctor. In the months before Smith's death, Mandelson and the London political "smart set" had been building up Blair at the expense of Brown, who was preoccupied with revolutionising Labour's economic policy - and taking a good deal of flak. He was rarely in the capital at weekends, usually spent in his constituency. In any event he disdained the weekend dinner-party circuit that took in the Blairs, Alastair Campbell, Mandelson, Harriet Harman and friendly journalists on the left-of-centre broadsheets. Mandelson was briefing for Blair from the outset, yet played a devious game of brinkmanship with Brown, culminating in a letter in which he offered to be partisan in the press on Brown's behalf. Reading between the lines, the letter was actually a put-down of Brown's leadership chances, stressing Blair's electoral appeal in the South.

Brown still believed he could win if he took on what friends called "the upper-class, public school-educated Blair" who was much less of a party man than the Shadow Chancellor. While I was writing my book, Brown always refused to discuss his Labour leadership campaign that never was, directing me to his close ally Nick Brown, now the Chief Whip - who was much more candid. Nick Brown insisted he had a list of 120 supportive Labour MPs, and that that was just the starting point. He told Brown at their "Last Supper" in Joe Allen's restaurant in Covent Garden, the night before his famous meeting at Granita with Blair, that he would win if he stood. Brown's dilemma was that he knew how to defeat Blair, but he did not want to damage him and undermine the process of modernisation that would take Labour into power.

There the matter rested until my final interview with Brown in his ornate office in the Treasury. There, seated at the long conference table, he produced one single quotation that told the whole story: "The newspapers, with a few notable exceptions, did not back me - not least because I was out of fashion. I was never part of the London scene anyway. But that did not in my view mean much, once the campaign started among ordinary Labour Party members and indeed backbench MPs." In other words, he believes he could have won. He could have beaten the political beau monde.

Brown's friends believe Blair let him down, and on this point there can be little doubt that they represent his feelings, too. Blair had repeatedly promised Brown he would not stand against him in a future leadership election.

It may rankle, but they are big enough to put it to one side. As they pace the garden of 10 Downing Street together theyplan the programme that will take their administration into its second term. Could that eventually mean a Brown prime ministership? He has certainly not lost all hope. In government, he looks more like the alter ago of Tony Blair than one of his ministers. How far will he go, and how long can he last? "As far as I can, and as long as I can," he told me in a car speeding to Heathrow, on his way to spend his first post-election holiday in Cape Cod with his girlfriend, Sarah Macaulay. "The changes I want to make will take many years. I'm young enough to be around for a lot of them. I don't feel old and I'm pretty fit. If this is what the Labour Party can achieve in its first 18 weeks, think what we can do in 18 years, with the will of the people." Even his old rival Kenneth Clarke, the ex-Chancellor, concedes: "Gordon is papabile," borrowing the Italian phrase for a cardinal who could become Pope. In the meantime, he sees himself as a social justice chancellor, rather than the cartoonists' Iron Chancellor.

Will Ms Macaulay be by his side as his wife? She was with him yesterday at the wedding of Yvette Cooper MP to the Chancellor's economics adviser, Ed Balls. Brown's friends have urged him to marry, preferably this year. But then, he has never been in a hurry to make up his mind.

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