Commentary: Labour's Deep Bench

Even if Blair stumbles, Chancellor of Exchequer Brown can step in

Once again the British press is in a frenzy over the longtime rivalry between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. At Labour's annual conference in Bournemouth, Brown seemed close to challenging the battered Blair on Sept. 29 with a rousing speech that barely mentioned the Prime

Minister, while promising big increases in public spending to defend the core Labour values of social justice and quality health care for all. But Blair came right back the next day saying he had no regrets about joining the U.S. in the war against Iraq and vowing to plow ahead with unpopular reforms such as introducing tuition at British universities. "I've not got a reverse gear," said Blair, echoing the Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. The papers showed a glum-looking Brown apparently declining to applaud Blair's speech.

Sounds tense. But what all the speculation about a Brown-Blair feud may miss is that the rivalry/partnership between these two heavyweights is potentially a real source of strength for Labour. The two have complemented each other. The charismatic Blair has won non-Labour votes while Brown gets much of the credit for the economic success of Britain, turning a Labour weakness into a strong suit. And if Blair cannot recover from the furor over Iraq, Brown's presence means the party still has a viable candidate for a third term.

Of course, if Brown is to succeed Blair, he will have to ease doubts over his ability to win votes outside the old Labour strongholds of the north of England, Wales, and Scotland. "Brown comes at his politics from a much more radical, progressive, egalitarian background. He passionately believes in these things," says Peter Kellner, chairman of the YouGov Ltd. polling organization.

Yet it's not as if the dour Scotsman's becoming Prime Minister would be such a huge change. In a deal he cut with Blair, Brown has used his control of the Treasury's coffers to run much of the government. He has kept the upper hand in the debate over whether Britain should adopt the euro, frustrating Blair's ambitions. What's more, Brown is seen as a more disciplined politician than the oft-waffling Blair. "He will not duck the issues," says Robert M. Worcester, chairman of British pollster MORI.

Brown's other challenge is winning over Britain Inc. True, he earned the admiration of the business Establishment -- and international investors -- in his first term as Chancellor, when he engineered a supertight fiscal policy and ceded the power to set interest rates to the Bank of England. But much to the dismay of business, Brown shifted priorities in his second term. He hiked taxes and ratcheted up public spending to revive the National Health Service, improve schools, and shore up the decrepit transportation infrastructure. "Business used to have great respect for him, [but] things have begun to crack in the last couple of years," says Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, a business group.

Of course, British voters -- who desperately want better National Health -- would be the ones to elect Brown, not the City. Besides, Brown can claim major achievements. The economy has grown each quarter since Labour came to power, though it has cooled a bit and is expected to grow about 2% for 2003. Unemployment is just 5%. If the numbers hold up, they will be impressive credentials for whoever leads Labour's next campaign. That leader may well be Brown.

By Stanley Reed

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