Sunday, January 06, 2008

Brown should accept the Blairite olive-branch

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 5 January 2008.


Earlier this week, I came across a list of “Wishes for 2008” which concluded with the words: “For Bush and Bin Laden to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to Pluto so the rest of us can kiss and make up.”

Joking aside, what it showed was that for most of us, Christmas and New Year is seen as a time of peace and goodwill, an opportunity for the burying of hatchets and the making of fresh starts.

Sadly, not everyone in the world sees it that way. Ever since the Russian tanks rolled into Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve, 1978, overseas conflicts have become almost a regular occurrence at this time of year.

The past week has been no exception, with the tribal warfare in Kenya following on from the terrible events in Pakistan surrounding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

But in one small corner of the political world, though, peace did break out over the course of this festive season – in the British Labour Party, no less.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown having experienced such a dreadful couple of months that there was even talk of another change of leadership, his old rivals on the uber-Blairite wing of the party suddenly decided to sue for peace.

North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers led the way with a dramatic declaration that Tony Blair was “history” and a call for the party to get solidly behind Mr Brown.

It also emerged that his friend and fellow North-East MP Alan Milburn has been “quietly” helping Downing Street, at a time when some might have urged him to distance himself.

Mr Byers wrote last Sunday: “With Tony Blair gone from domestic politics, the task of leading Labour to victory falls to Gordon Brown. It is the responsibility of all of us who want to see a fourth election victory to give him our support.

"Tony Blair is history. He is the political past and will not be part of the future of domestic politics in our country."

The message was unmistakeable. The Blair-Brown feud is finally over, and will not be carried on at one remove by the former Prime Minister’s closest remaining allies.

Mr Blair, who has no intention of becoming a “back-seat driver” like Lady Thatcher, is himself reported to have demanded a show of loyalty to Mr Brown in the tumultuous weeks following the cancellation of the general election last autumn.

Now the first thing to say about all this, from a purely North-East perspective, is that it might make the regional Labour Party slightly less of a beargarden than has been the case for the past decade.

For many years, the tribal Blairite-Brownite split has cut through the politics of the region like a knife.

Here were to be found some of Mr Blair’s strongest and most influential supporters – Mr Byers, Mr Milburn, Peter Mandelson, Hilary Armstrong, and latterly David Miliband.

But at the same time, the North-East was also home to many of Mr Brown’s key lieutenants - Nick Brown, Doug Henderson, Kevan Jones and, before his retirement from the Commons in 2005, Derek Foster.

Too much bad blood has been spilt between these two camps down the years to expect them all to kiss and make up overnight, but of course the implications of Mr Byers’ olive-branch go far wider.

So what was it all about? Well, one thing it was not was an attempt to suck-up to Mr Brown in the hope of making a ministerial comeback.

The former Transport Secretary has no ambitions to return to government, and appears content with his role as a thoughtful, and by no means uninfluential, backbench voice.

Neither was it, in my view, simply a call for unity brought on by the desperate circumstances in which the government and Mr Brown currently find themselves.

No, I think Mr Byers’ intervention was part of a more complex picture that will become clearer over the next few weeks as other former Blairites dip their toes into the waters of internal party debate.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, for instance, is shortly expected to make a major speech on social mobility, an issue over which the government was heavily criticised in a report last month.

Mr Milburn himself will also be returning to the fray, majoring on public sector reform and the “choice” agenda – still the key issue for many ex-Blairites.

What Mr Byers’ article has done is prepared the ground for this policy debate to take place in a context where it is interpreted not as a challenge to Mr Brown’s leadership, but as helpful and constructive advice.

So how should Mr Brown respond? Well, as one commentator wrote last week, his initial temptation will probably be to “pick up this olive branch and use it to give the Blairites a thrashing.”

But he does not have that luxury. Such is the Prime Minister’s current plight that he needs to be able to swallow his pride and accept help wherever it is offered.

Mr Brown was badly let down last year by his closest allies who allowed the autumn election fever to get so out of control, openly speculating about whether “the gamble” lay in going or not going to the polls.

He clearly needs to widen the circle of those he listens to, and there is now no reason why it should not include experienced former ministers such as Messrs Byers, Blunkett and Milburn.

Amid all his current difficulties, Mr Brown has two crucial advantages compared to the position John Major was in during the mid-1990s.

First, as I pointed out last week, there has been no great upsurge of enthusiasm for David Cameron as there was then for Mr Blair. Second, he leads a moreorless united party.

But it is not so much mere unity which is now on offer from his former rivals, as fresh thinking and new ideas.

And with his government in danger of looking like an exhausted volcano, that, surely, is what Mr Brown now needs most of all.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read this post. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

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