A Dogfight Within The House of Labour

Fall is party-conference season in Britain, when the politicians head for seaside resorts to air gripes and jockey for position. You might think the rivalry everyone's watching would be Tory vs. Labour, especially as it's widely expected that Prime Minister Tony Blair will call an election by next spring. But the more closely watched contest is between Blair and his tough Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, for control of the party -- and ultimately of 10 Downing St.

Just a few months ago, Brown -- who makes little secret of his desire to succeed Blair -- had reason to think he would soon get his way. Brown was getting credit for Britain's sustained boom, while Blair's Iraq policy had sparked public outrage and his ratings were in the cellar. Blair also faced two potentially bruising government inquiries about his conduct. Labour Party insiders figured Blair was seriously considering handing over his post to Brown.

Undermining

Now the situation is reversed. Blair is still disliked by many voters, but he has survived the probes, the economy keeps growing, and the Tories under Michael Howard have not made serious headway. "It looks as certain as anything can be that Blair will lead the party into the general election," says Peter Kellner, Chairman of pollsters YouGov.

What about Brown? The buzz is that Blair may try to shift Brown from his powerful treasury post or curb his role in the party. Blair is trying to place backers in positions where they could compete with Brown for the future party leadership. In an early-September reshuffle, Blair brought Alan Milburn, a former Health Secretary and Brown foe, back into the Cabinet. In the next campaign, Milburn will oversee the drafting of the party manifesto -- a challenge to Brown, who has long been Labour's top political strategist. "Mr. Brown is not dead yet, but Mr. Blair has tried to stab him through the heart of his ambition," writes Independent columnist Bruce Anderson.

Control Freak?

Blair has drawn assistance in his fight from an unlikely source -- a book by former economic adviser Derek Scott, now being serialized by The Sunday Times. The book, Off Whitehall, is ostensibly about Britain's euro policy, but the political classes are reading it for insights into Labour's internal rivalries. In Scott's vivid and often hilarious account, Brown emerges as a big spender and a secretive control freak. Brown, writes Scott, balked at sharing his plans with Blair on crucial matters such as budgets. "Give us a hint, Gordon!" Blair prodded, when Brown said he hadn't made up his mind about the 1998 budget a month before it was due. To figure out what Brown was up to, says Scott, Blair's aides took to behaving like "investigative journalists," smuggling officials from Brown's Treasury into meetings at No. 10.

Scott is also sharply critical of Blair -- the government tried unsuccessfully to make Scott delete chunks of the book -- saying Blair erred in ceding vast swaths of policy to Brown. But overall, it's Brown who comes off worse. Pundits think the book will add to the impression that the high-strung Brown is too inflexible to be an effective Prime Minister. Brown still has a solid core of support in the party, and he may yet regain the initiative. But it's Blair who seems set to lead Labour -- and Britain -- for years to come.

By Stanley Reed in London

Edited by Patricia Kranz

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