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Gordon Brown should seize the knife, and do so soon

Matthew Parris

MACBETH was greatly reassured by the prophecies offered him by the three witches on that blasted heath. Their prophecies came true — to the letter. And their fulfilment proved Macbeth’s ruination. Were I Gordon Brown, I would be re-reading Shakespeare’s tragedy.
I would be doing so in the month in which Tony Blair’s righthand man, Jonathan Powell, is said to have met the Tory MP Boris Johnson, not amid the Scottish heather but astride bicycles in Pall Mall in London where the two met by chance at red traffic lights — and Mr Powell told Mr Johnson, in the few seconds available before the lights changed, that the history of the Chancellor would prove to have been a Shakespearean tragedy.

The implication was obvious: the flawed hero would fail to achieve his life’s ambition: 10 Downing Street.

If Mr Powell did say that, he would have been half-right. A tragedy it may prove, Shakespearean it undoubtedly is — but Mr Brown’s fate will not be a failure to take the crown. It will be to take the crown when the kingdom is already lost. It will be to go down in history as the man in whose hands the achievements assembled by his predecessor fell apart. It will be to go down in history as the first Labour leader to lose a general election in the 21st century.

For the Chancellor should this week be contemplating the most baleful prophecy of all: that everything should come to pass even as it has been predicted — and prove for him not the final triumph for which he has lived and worked, but the wreckage of all his dreams. He should contemplate the likelihood that the Prime Minister is not, after all, going to cheat him of the promise that Mr Brown believes has been given, or refuse to make way for him. Mr Blair will honour the promise. He will stand down.

The tragedy that Mr Brown should be contemplating is therefore the most bitter of all human stories: that a man should finally win his heart’s desire — everything he ever wanted — and that it should prove a wretched end.

This week Mr Blair has made it plain that he wants to lead the campaign for a “yes” vote for the European constititution. At the same time, others, well-placed, have been reinforcing the suggestion that such a referendum will be held later rather than earlier.

Most commentators think that means early in 2006. Only a fool would call the referendum now (it would be lost) and, besides, Mr Blair’s argument — that before any plebiscite, Parliament should be given time to reflect, comment and vote upon the agreed text — is well made. Only after that, Mr Blair says, should the people’s rubber stamp, “yes” or “no”, be invited. For whatever self-interested reasons, Mr Blair may delay his referendum, the delay will allow our representatives to offer a view first, and give them first refusals on the deal.

All of which makes a referendum this year almost impossible. Next year there will probably be a general election in the spring or early summer, and Labour is wise not to want a referendum to become entangled with that. Late in 2005 would be a possibility, but the “yes” camp will need time to get a campaign going after the dust of a general election has settled, so early 2006 — the deadline by which all European Union members have to give their answers — looks highly likely, not least because there remains a small chance that, after a string of “no” votes from other countries, the whole thing will have been called off by then.

The chances of a 2006 referendum on the European constitution are therefore strong. The chances of its being lost are also strong. And who could feel more inwardly relaxed about that than a prime minister whose chapter in government is already drawing to a close, who is absolutely confident that — win or lose — he is doing the right thing in seeking a “yes” to the European constitution, and whose nagging concern for years has been that history should see him as more than a cynical, office-seeking opportunist, but as a man finally true to big principles, fired by beliefs which transcended the ups and downs of the domestic political dogfight, a captain navigating by the stars?

Of course Mr Blair wants to go on the crest of a wave; winning a European referendum would be such a crest; but going for it full tilt, losing it, and retiring, head held high, as one who could easily have dodged an unequal fight, but instead battled for what he believed in, fought, and lost, would not be without honour; and I am sure Mr Blair is conscious of that.

For perhaps the first time, then, the Prime Minister really is able to give his successor a date, and I suspect that at last he has done so. There is a small chance it will be next month, as Iraq takes independence and Mr Blair reaches the tenth anniversary of his becoming Labour leader; and a bigger chance that it will be in the spring of 2006, after a referendum on the Euro-pean constitution — win or lose. I expect Mr Brown now believes this.

So let us suppose that the Chancellor’s latest fit of co-operativeness settles upon him. Confident that this time Mr Blair really is cruising into the final straight (albeit prolonged) of his premiership, and anxious that the sea be calm and the weather sunny for his coronation in two years’ time, the restless and moody occupant of 11 Downing Street may cease the wildcat skirmishes with his next-door neighbour which have characterised (and skewed) Mr Blair’s whole time in office, and settle back to wait. Says a comforting internal whisper: “Calm down, Gordon. Relax. Soon you will be king. Nothing can stop you now.” That whisper is probably accurate. But so fixated may Mr Brown’s attention have become on taking the leader’s crown that I wonder how much thought has been given to the circumstances in which the coronation takes place.

Four things we would know, which we do not know now, as this imagined handover took place in (say) June 2006. Were the last two years of Mr Brown’s chancellorship the apparent success that the seven just behind him, in 2004, have been? Has the domestic economy and housing market continued the run of good luck and good judgment which had marked it up to the summer of 2004? Did new Labour come through its third general election unscathed, as strong as ever? And was the referendum on the European constitution won or lost?

Those questions add up — or boil down — to a vaguer but potent question: in 2006, will it look like being almost over now for new Labour? Will an exceptionally long political era feel as though it is drawing to a close? As Labour turns to Brown, will the once fresh green leaves of new Labour’s millennial hopes be beginning, too, to turn to brown?

If the answer to that question in 2006, after nine years in power and with Labour well into its third term in office, is yes, then our present Chancellor may end his career having been Prime Minister for three years, but never having been elected Prime Minister. The chances are that a Brown premiership starting in 2006 after nine years — hungry and impatient years for the new leader, but years in which public trust in the party that supports him has slowly leaked away — are in danger of attracting to his premiership a sunset quality. The last lap of a Labour government could prove the first, and only, lap of a new Labour prime minister.

Nobody should underestimate the power which a sense of tide can have in politics and history. Nobody should understimate how fatal to a new leader’s manifesto can be the inkling that the Force is no longer with his army. Nobody should overlook how unfair, yet how unanswerable, is the feeling that it is all slipping away and nothing can bring it back. Ask John Major.

It is this which leads me to a hunch I cannot prove but cannot shake off, that Gordon Brown’s best hope of bucking a falling market for his party is to fight for his crown like a man, not kick his heels in the anteroom, waiting for it to be passed to him like an ageing anointed son. Seamlessness will not serve him well. He needs to look new. His Government needs to feel different. The switch to his premiership needs to attract the excitement of revolution.

The Chancellor and his supporters have been persuaded that if the succession were to take place in an atmosphere of recrimination and bloodletting, this would get Mr Brown off to a bad start. I disagree. However long Mr Blair’s political death may take, it is all over for him. Only in blood can a new phase of new Labour begin. Gordon Brown should seize the knife, and do so soon. But I do not believe he will. Something tells me, as I believe it tells Mr Blair, that in the end Gordon will always funk it. And so in the end he will get what he deserves: the dog years of an exhausted administration. “Infirm of purpose”, as somebody once said.