British politics : Blair passes baton to Brown
They tussled with each other even to the end. Through the extraordinary unfolding hours of Wednesday’s handover, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown seemed to be locked in the final spasm of their 13-year duel, each jockeying with the other for prominence. How would this day be cast - as Blair’s last, or Brown’s first? If the new man expected, finally, to have an uninterrupted day in the sun he was to be disappointed, and not only by the rain. The first event of the constitutional sequence was Blair’s last prime minister’s questions. Initially it seemed likely to be a sombre affair, David Cameron asking low-key, consensual questions about floods and hopes for the Middle East. Blair had few chances to shine. But then Northern Ireland’s first minister Ian Paisley paid a lavish tribute, Blair allowed his voice to crack and took an (apparently sincere) gulp, and suddenly the House of Commons was doing what it had never done before: standing in a united ovation for a departing prime minister.
Clapping is taboo enough, but for MPs of all sides, left and right, to be on their feet was stunning to behold. If the Tories had clapped Margaret Thatcher in 1990, which they did not, Labour MPs would have sawn off their own hands rather than join in. What does it say of Blair that he was able to win the approval of the entire house? Perhaps that MPs admired his undeniable political skill; perhaps that, thanks to his oft-mentioned courtesy, they simply liked him.
Either way, the result was an image so strong it threatened to steal the story from the coming man. Even on Wednesday, on what should have been his big day, Gordon Brown found himself having to wrest the spotlight away from Tony Blair. It was like that all afternoon, as the news channels hopped back and forth between the photocall of Tony, Cherie and the kids to later pictures of Gordon and Sarah, then back to new footage of the former PM boarding a train. Finally in Downing Street after waiting so long, Brown still could
not get the nation’s undivided attention: the screen was split.
Brown’s final act as chancellor was signing Blair’s application for the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, the technical procedure required for an MP to quit his seat. They couldn’t escape each other. Even in his absence, you could feel Blair’s presence. When Brown finally appeared in Downing Street, approaching the microphones to make his first speech as PM, he did it as the unBlair. Where his predecessor had strode into Downing Street 10 years ago, slick and smiling, Brown looked sober and serious. There were no crowds, no waving of plastic flags, no sunshine. While May 2, 1997 was one enormous photo-op, the snappers on Wednesday were shouting that Brown was standing in the wrong spot.
The rhetoric was different, too. The newly arrived Blair had inflated the highest of expectations, promising a “new dawn” and to be “purer than pure”. Brown let slip no such hostages to fortune, setting a much more modest aim for himself: “I will try my utmost.” Lest there be any doubt, Brown spelled out that his will be a new government, promising “change” no fewer than eight times in a short address, his last words before entering Downing Street for the first time as PM: “Now let the work of change begin.” Later his chief lieutenant, Ed Balls, hailed “the end of an era”.
Inside his new office, Brown rammed home the message. His first act in charge was to revoke the order that had allowed special advisers to instruct civil servants, a mechanism that had granted Blair press spokesman Alastair Campbell and Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell such sweeping authority. The order was pretty well a dead letter now, but it was a symbolic act all the same — Brown’s way of saying the age of sofa government is over.
Now all eyes will go to the reshuffle for more signs of Brown’s distinguishing himself from his predecessor. There could be some big restructuring of departments and some unexpected names, especially in the lower ministerial ranks: Brown aides say it’s here that he will make good his promise of a government of all the talents. Those areas where he signalled the need for change on Wednesday — the National Health Service, schools, housing, trust, and, most enigmatically, “the British way of life” — give a good sense of which hats are most likely to sprout rabbits. And yet, for all the differences in both style and substance, the similarities between Brown and Blair were also visible. New Labour was always a “big tent” project, and Brown’s “all the talents” promise fits that. The talk of strength, the optimism and patriotic boosterism — Britain “a great global success story” — were all classic Blair. And they are more than rhetorical tropes. They are proof that, for all the personal feuding, the Blair-Brown split was never an ideological divide.
So they may now be apart, one off to solve the world’s bitterest conflict, the other in the house of his dreams, but this was always a shared journey — and so, in some ways, it remains. — The Guardian