The British government is sick at heart, or from its head, and further gory details of its wasting disease leak out with every passing week.
In an attempt to remedy it, Tony Blair offered his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the chance to take over his job as Prime Minister. Brown turned Blair down. He saw that acceptance of the deal would have put his reputation, and his potential political capital, at mortal risk.
So Blair remains in residence at Number 10. Brown lurks in the shadows, politically potent - yet tied inseparably to his old nemesis, the more voter-friendly Blair. And so the sickness at the heart of the British government lingers on - at least until after the upcoming British elections.
A book to be published tomorrow, Brown´s Britain, by Robert Peston, paints a lurid picture of the troubled pairing whose periodic spats Whitehall refers to as "the TB-GB´s", this symbiotic relationship between Blair and Brown, the uneasy heart of New Labour´s Government.
To summarise the backstory:
- Before Blair became leader (during the late John Smith´s leadership), Brown was the heir apparent: better known, better respected both within and without the Labour party. Blair was a key player too, of course, but he took a back seat to Brown.
- Insiders say the two men - who were close allies then - had an agreement that Blair wouldn´t oppose Brown´s eventual accession to the leadership. Blair even told Brown´s brother that he hadn´t had any personal ambitions for the Labour leadership - Blair saw himself as a potential cabinet minister, maybe a European Commissioner, but no more.
- When Smith unexpectedly died, the situation was transformed. Blair had already caught up and even overtaken Brown in recognition and popularity. Blair now declared his desire to lead the party, something Brown saw as a personal betrayal - the first of many...
- The so-called "Granita deal" between them, sealed in a restaurant of that name in 1994, was an attempt to put their relationship on a workable footing. Brown agreed to let Blair take over the leadership unopposed - if, in return, Blair would let Brown assume the Chancellorship and run the government´s economic policy with a free hand. The payoff for Brown was that Blair would stand down during his second term, and give Brown the keys to Downing Street. That Blair has reneged on this salient part of the deal (for by rights it should have happened last autumn at the latest) is the betrayal that has most frustrated Brown.
- The Granita deal - or the conflicting versions of it Blair and Brown remember - has been fundamental to the working of the British government since Labour came to power, and remains the source of its manifold discontents and dysfunctions.
The latest development centres around Europe and the euro.
Blair has always been keen to scrap the pound and to take Britain into the euro on the back of a referendum. And he sees this as a question in which political override economic criteria. He believes in the European Union and all its works, and taking Britain into the heart of Europe is part and parcel of the Blairite project.
Brown - no anti-European, but knowing his reputation is tied to Britain´s economic performance - has resisted any attempts by Blair to promote the single currency issue within the UK, and, by means of his "five tests" of economic compatibility, has dextrously sabotaged Blair´s hopes of a referendum on the question.
In trying to cut through the impasse created by Brown´s avowedly apolitical, purely economic "five tests", Blair thought he would dangle before Brown the one thing he lusts after above all else - the Prime Ministership.
The deal Blair offered was simple: if Brown would fudge a report the (supposedly independent) Treaury was preparing on Britain´s readiness for the euro, then Blair would stand aside and leave the way open for Brown to succeed him. All Brown had to do in return was to give the Treasury´s findings a spin to suit the case for entry, so that a winnable referendum could be held prior to this year´s elections.
Brown, as we have seen, rejected this deal. This rejection of the thing he most wants shows Brown´s steadfastness of principle, although one should stress that, if he had played ball, he would have risked more than his reputation for principled probity - his reputation for financial competence would have been on the line too. And without that he would have been a lame duck, vulnerable to all sorts of fatal sniping .
Blair, not an unprincipled man, nevertheless emerges from these revelations as one who is perfectly happy to twist the presentation of facts to fit his case. More damningly, he seems to regard such presentational flexibility as par for the political course. The case of the Iraq intelligence dossier had already alerted observers to this trait. It is now well to the fore again.
For both Blair and Brown, visionary ends justify Macchiavellian means. In this instance, circumstances conspired to oblige Brown to stand aside, for the moment.
As a result, Blair is still Prime Minister today.
But Brown comes out of it all with a much enhanced reputation. And it´s one he has been busily burnishing in Tanzania this week, profiling himself as a global leader of the future, with his "Marshall Plan for Africa". If, after the election, he doesn´t stay on as Chancellor, it may be he will take over at the Foreign Office. Alternatively, he will remove to the back benches and plot his takeover of the Prime Ministership itself.
For the effects of the bickering aren´t restricted to the egos of the two men themselves, nor to their families, nor their colleagues, nor even their political party, it´s something that´ll affect the whole of Britain, soon enough.