Tony and Gordon: the continuing saga of a beautiful friendship

Political relationships

Donald Macintyre
Sunday 20 September 2015 20:28

Gordon Brown is on a roll. If you doubt for a second how formidable a politician the Chancellor is, consider how he managed this week to delight his party - by playing Santa to the pensioners - without even momentarily arresting the growth of his "Iron laddie" reputation in the markets. There was lavish personal praise for his "Green Budget" - especially in the daily diet of the Labour Party faithful, the Daily Mirror and the Guardian. Amid all the fulsome coverage there was just a hint that Brown is a radical in a way that Tony Blair isn't - that it's at the Treasury rather than at Number 10 that the true Labour flame is really burning. And now what's this? A Daily Telegraph interview which while laying heavy emphasis on the Chancellor's dark, brooding good looks, his tentative marriage plans, his undoubted attractiveness to women, elicits some mildly contentious answers. No, he doesn't like the term (promoted by some in the Blair circle) "rebranding of Britain". And no, he isn't up for "all this touchy-feely stuff". What's that, if not just what Tony Blair has been up to - for example in his post-Diana relations with the Royal Family? A difference of view between the two indisputably most powerful men in the Government?

This may sound like nitpicking Kremlinology gone mad. Nevertheless the question matters because this is by a long way the most important alliance in public life. History will show, surely, that this is in the big league of deeply influential political relationships, on a par with - say - Asquith- Lloyd George or Bevin-Attlee. So to understand what's going on, and to take the measure of the bitternesses and antagonisms that undoubtedly surface from time to time among some of the acolytes of both men, it's necessary to understand it a little better.

The first point is the familiarity, born of daily, intensive contact since the 1980s. Brown and Blair came into government already knowing each other better than most politicians get to know each other through their whole career. They wrote each other's speeches. Blair's most famous slogan as Shadow Home Secretary "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" had been invented by Brown and unhesitatingly offered to his colleague. The push immediately after the 1992 election for Labour to shed its union- dominated and tax-and-spending past had been forged jointly, in endless discussions between the two men in one or other of their adjacent offices. And while Brown had of course desperately wanted to succeed John Smith, the fundamental ideas on which Blair campaigned for the leadership in 1994 had a shared copyright.

Given that background, you need to distinguish between Brown's relations with Blair, and that between some of Brown's friends and some of Blair's. The two men see and telephone each other daily, sometimes as often as three times a day. This makes the relationship more mysterious and wide- ranging than any other in politics. But it also makes it closer, Brown and Blair know each other at least as well as they know most of their own entourages. The two men's press secretaries, Alistair Campbell and Charlie Whelan, show every sign of working together closely. But it would be understandable, for example, if some at Number 10 resented the fact that Blair took all the flak over the Bernie Ecclestone donation while Brown soaks up all the praise for this week's budget. Blair himself is utterly immune to this, believing simply that good publicity for Gordon Brown helps everyone in government, including him. Conversely those close to Brown have recently been going out of their way to emphasise the extent to which the Green Budget proposals - including the highly political handout to pensioners - were worked out in consort between Chancellor and Prime Minister.

This doesn't, of course, mean they are not different people. Or that there are not sharp and important disagreements. Blair rejected the 50 per cent top rate of tax proposed by Brown, and insisted on an EMU referendum pledge. Equally Blair took some persuading that a cut in MIRAS in last summer's budget was sensible. But this last is an instructive case. Apparently, Brown returned to the Treasury, having discussed the issue with Blair, feeling that the Prime Minister had had the last word. It was only when officials persuaded the Chancellor to have another go that he reopened the issue with Number 10. In other words Brown behaved precisely like a loyal Chancellor with a recognition of Blair's role as the First Lord of the Treasury. It says a lot for Brown's towering position in the Government that this should seem almost counter-intuitive. It is easy to make myths: and one is that Brown has never, deep in his heart, accepted that he, and not Blair, became leader. Some of his opponents appear to think so. But that doesn't make it true.

And those very disagreements occur in the ebb and flow of endless conversation between two politicians with shared values and experience. Margaret Thatcher once claimed that she didn't know Nigel Lawson was shadowing the Deutschmark until she read about in the Financial Times. You can't, given the frequency of contact between the two men, ever imagine Blair being in a similar position. Civil servants quite often complain in private that Blair and Brown have too many meetings together in which officials are not present, or telephone calls in which there is not a civil servant listening on the line. They may have a point; one consequence is that decisions are not always easily understood by the officials who have to implement them. But it also means that disagreements don't so often become institutionalised as familiar set-piece territorial battles between Number 10 and the Treasury. As an originally distinctly untrusting Brown takes more officials - such as the monetary policy permanent secretary Sir Nigel Wicks and his own recent appointee Gus O'Donnell - into his confidence that may anyway start to change. But the one-to-one meetings aren't going to stop, however much some officials would prefer them to.

In the run-up to John Smith's death, there was a triangle of the three most actively modernising politicians in the Labour Party: Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. Since Blair became leader only one side of this triangular relationship has fractured, that between Brown and Mandelson.

Maybe the Brown-Blair relationship does defy gravity; didn't Lloyd George after all bleakly say that there was no friendship at the top? But they would need each other even if they didn't like each other. Brown's strategic clarity and modernising drive have been crucial to Blair; Blair has reconnected the party with the electorate, and he remains what Britain voted for on 1 May. Brown is a restless, driven politician who certainly still wants to be prime minister. He may yet, in time, become so; perhaps precisely as Callaghan did when Wilson went in 1976. But he also knows that his success is intimately bound to Blair's. Nothing can be sure; the relationship could in time go sour. But it hasn't happened yet. And until it does, it still remains the most potent political axis of modern times.

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