Monday, June 26, 2006

Brown's nuclear bombshell

Published in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, Saturday June 24, 2006.

Clare Short, once tipped as Gordon Brown’s deputy, says she will not now back him. Moderate-left MPs like Gordon Prentice who might have formed the solid core of his support castigate him for pre-empting a vital decision about the nation’s future.

Thus, by announcing he will support the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system, Gordon Brown ensured that there will be a contest for the Labour leadership when Tony Blair finally stands down.

But is the Chancellor sorry? Does he believe he has committed some huge political faux pas? Not a bit of it.

The Chancellor’s Mansion House Speech on Wednesday may have made a leadership challenge to him from the Labour left inevitable – but that is exactly the impact he intended it to have.

Ever since Labour’s leaders started talking about an “orderly transition,” there have been two underlying assumptions about the succession.

The first was that Mr Brown would be the only candidate. The second was that he himself would not welcome the emergence of a rival challenger.

The first of these assumptions was probably always wrong. Politics abhors a vacuum, and it is always likely that when a Prime Minister’s job comes up for grabs, more than one person will fancy a pop at it.

But what has changed in recent weeks is that it has become clear to Mr Brown himself that a leadership challenge is not only to be expected, but that it should be welcomed.

Partly this is a response to the leadership contests that have taken place in the other two parties over the past 12 months.

David Cameron’s emphatic victory in the Tory leadership contest in particular enabled him to claim a clear mandate for his reformist brand of conservatism and strengthened his position both inside and outside the party.

Even Sir Menzies Campbell – whom some people wanted to assume the Lib Dem leadership without a contest – ultimately benefited from Chris Huhne’s unexpected and spirited challenge.

Mr Brown knows that elections clear the air, and give the winner a legitimacy and authority that they would otherwise lack.

But for the Chancellor, it’s not just about having any election, but a particular sort of election – one in which he can position himself as the impeccably New Labour “heir to Blair”

In one sense, given the poisonous hatred in some sections of the Labour Party towards the Prime Minister and all his works, it is surprising that he should want to do this.

But Mr Brown knows, firstly, that the Tories’ main line of attack against him will be that he is the “roadblock to reform,” and secondly, that the Blairites are looking for any excuse to run one of their own against him.

Hence his first moves in the run-up to the leadership election will be to protect his more vulnerable right flank against the charge that he is really more Old Labour than New.

It is in this context that the Trident announcement has to be seen. It is the perfect issue on which to provoke the left-wing challenge that Mr Brown now wants.

It is perfect not only because, given the left’s feelings about the issue, they are bound to rise to the bait, but also because it will portray Mr Brown as in touch with mainstream public opinion, which still favours the retention of the nuclear deterrent.

Ms Short, who led the hissing against the Chancellor on Thursday, is also a fairly convenient bogey-woman, in that her behaviour over the Iraq War destroyed her own credibility.

Indeed, it would complete a rather dream scenario for Mr Brown if she herself ended up as the left’s candidate.

One reaction to Mr Brown’s comments on Trident this week was that he had “led his supporters into the desert and left them there.”

My hunch, though, is he won’t leave them there for long, and that key to this will be an attempt to draw some sort of line under Iraq.

Because Mr Brown voted for the war, and did not resign over it, the option of disowning it now is not open to him.

What he can do, however, is to admit that appalling mistakes were made both in the run-up to the war and the aftermath, and that nothing like it will ever be allowed to happen again.

I would also anticipate from Mr Brown a series of moves in the constitutional arena, mainly modeled on his 1997 announcement of Bank of England independence.

Then, he divested himself as the incoming Chancellor of the ability to set interest rates, knowing that the public – and more importantly the markets – would rather see this entrusted to an independent panel.

This time round, as the incoming Prime Minister, he will seek to divest himself of the power to confer honours and appoint bishops, both of which will similarly be devolved to independent bodies.

He may also give up his power to make war, handing this to Parliament in another symbolic move which would help heal the post-Iraq wounds.

But in the final analysis, Mr Brown knows he cannot be beaten in a leadership election from the left, only from the right - which is why some of these things may have to wait until he is actually in Number 10.

Alan Johnson remains overwhelmingly the most likely challenger from this quarter, although he purports to be more interested in the deputy leadership.

One leading Blair ally recently warned the Chancellor that he would need to present an “absolutely modern, Blairite New Labour face” if he wanted to retain their support.

In risking the wrath of the left over Trident, no-one can deny that Brown has fulfilled his side of the bargain.

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