LONDON — British Finance Minister Gordon Brown obviously wants to succeed Tony Blair as British prime minister. But it is less obvious that he is willing to do what is necessary to lead the Labour Party to victory in the next general election. In some critical sense, he must repudiate Blair’s legacy, which, at a minimum, means promising to take Britain out of the Iraq War.
Brown has longed to be prime minister ever since May 12, 1994, the fateful day when John Smith, the Labour Party’s leader in opposition, dropped dead of a heart attack. Two weeks later, on May 31, Blair and Brown met in a small restaurant in North London, and debated who should take over the party leadership. By the end of their discussion, they had made a double deal: Brown would stand aside and support Blair as the next party leader; in return, Blair would later give up the leadership to him.
Crucially, but inevitably, they did not agree when, or under what circumstances, Blair would fulfill his side of the bargain. Inevitably, they could not foresee that Blair would go on to win an unprecedented three successive election victories for Labour, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and thus keep Labour in power for a record-breaking period of possibly as long as 13 years.
The key challenge for New Labour (as Blair re-styled it with his characteristic gift for spin), was the management of the British economy. Since World War II, most British governments tried to manipulate the economy for short-term party advantage, usually with disastrous long-term results. This lamentable tradition was common to both Conservatives and Labour; and yet, unfairly, it was the Labour Party that was most contaminated by the smear that it could not be trusted to manage the economy.
Brown decisively changed that reputation. He has been probably the most outstanding chancellor of the exchequer in British history, not because of any inspiration or genius, but simply because he has built on a new tradition of prioritizing low inflation, low interest rates, and stable government finances.
Brown understood that these priorities were essential, not just for the British economy, but also for the long-term prospects of Labour in power; and he entrenched this agenda by giving the Bank of England independent responsibility for keeping inflation low. As a result, Britain has had an unprecedented decade of low inflation and relatively high economic growth, outperforming many of its European counterparts.
Yet, despite economic success, it became steadily clearer that Blair’s time was running out. The electorate grew increasingly disillusioned with the unavoidable shortcomings of an over-familiar government, and the party grew increasingly discontented with a leader who had outstayed his welcome. At first, Blair thought that he could claim the right to remain in power for a third full five-year term. But the pressure on him to go has steadily risen, to the point where he has now almost promised to give up in the summer of 2007.
But no one knows exactly when, or how, Blair will step down. If there is a formal leadership contest, it seems likely that several rival candidates will aim to stand. But almost all authoritative observers seem to agree that Brown is by far the most likely man to be the next Labour prime minister.
That is the easy part. From that point on, no one seems certain whether Brown knows what to do, or has what it takes, to fight and win another general election for Labour. His reputation for command and control of the economy is magisterial and unchallenged, but he has given almost no clue as to what he thinks of other government policies. He has remained dour and almost silent, visibly chafing with impatience to come into his inheritance, but offering no hint of what difference he would make when he does.
The one thing he cannot do is promise to continue Blair’s policies. If Brown offers more of the same, he will lose. After 10 years of Blair, he must offer one or more policies that mark a clear break.
The most obvious candidate for such a policy switch is Iraq: If Brown wants to win an election as Labour leader, he must renounce Blair’s policy and announce the withdrawal, in short order, of British troops. In tactical terms, this should be easy and obvious: Whatever the deceitful and illegal reasons originally given for invading Iraq, everyone now knows that this war has proved a political, strategic, and moral catastrophe. Everyone knows that it cannot be “won,” whatever that means, and Brown knows that both the war and Britain’s servile subordination to the Bush administration are deeply unpopular in Britain.
This is the issue that is crying out to be addressed: but so far none of the main political parties has dared touch it. In the past three weeks, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all held their annual conferences. All of them concentrated on domestic policies; none dared discuss Iraq, because they all know that to do so would raise the question of withdrawal, which in turn would unleash a major and possibly explosive debate about Britain’s relationship with the U.S.
Does Brown have the stomach to take on the risks involved in confronting the Iraq question? Possibly not. He may decide that it is too difficult, in which case he will be a lame duck prime minister, condemned to serve out the three years remaining in Labour’s current term with no hope of winning the next election. That is not what he planned when he struck his bargain with Blair back in 1994.
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