British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 5

Blair and Brown

Tony Blair had been elected leader of the Labour following the death of John Smith in 1994 (see British Politics Table 7.2 page 118 and linked text). In that leadership election, Gordon Brown, previously regarded as the senior partner in the earlier close association and friendship between the two men, agreed to stand aside when it was clear that Blair had strong support. There were persistent rumours, but no clear evidence, that a deal had been struck between the two men, under which Blair agreed to stand down in Brown’s favour at some time in the future. When Blair became Prime Minister and Brown Chancellor of the Exchequer after the 1997 General Election, Blair certainly conceded extensive authority to Brown, not only over economic matters but over the whole field of domestic social policy, to the extent that he sometimes seemed Blair’s co-equal (British Politics, p. 367). Moreover it seems that Brown virtually vetoed Blair’s hopes of the United Kingdom joining the Euro, the single European currency (British Politics, p. 273). Brown clearly retained his own ambition to become one day Labour’s leader and Prime Minister

The relationship between the two men seems to have deteriorated after the 2001 election, with plotting against Blair by some of Brown’s supporters. Problems for Blair intensified after the war in Iraq began in 2003. Brown, according to some sources, was not convinced war was necessary, but eventually supported it. Blair (according to other sources) was so depressed at one stage by problems arising from the war and its bloody aftermath, that he considered resigning in 2004, but was persuaded by his allies and friends not to. In the course of the 2005 election campaign, Blair declared that he would not fight another election as party leader and Prime Minister, although he also said he would serve a full term (British Politics p. 196). Some of Blair’s supporters regarded this commitment as crazy, turning him into a ‘lame duck’ Prime Minister. However, it secured Brown’s full support in the election campaign, and perhaps helped to secure an unprecedented third consecutive Labour election victory, albeit with a much lower vote and smaller Commons majority. In 2006 there was futher plotting by ‘Brownites’ to secure an early transfer of power. At the Labour Party Conference in 2006 Blair announced that this would be his last conference as leader. Thereafter Brown and Blair seemed to work together to achieve a smooth transfer of power, ultimately achieved in June 2007.

Brown elected unopposed as Labour Leader

Before Brown could become Prime Minister he had first to be elected as Labour Leader. At the same time Labour would need a new Deputy Leader, as John Prescott announced he was resigning too. The somewhat cumbersome system of electing Labour’s Leader and Deputy Leader is described in British Politics p. 118. Briefly, it involves an electoral college in which Labour MPs and MEPs, Labour Party individual members, and affiliated organisations (chiefly trade unions) each have a third of the votes. Blair had achieved a clear majority in all three categories in 1994. Although there was some speculation about a leadership challenge from other leading Labour party figures, such as Alan Johnson, Charles Clarke and David Miliband, none of these or anyone else proved able or willing to contest the leadership, and Brown was elected unopposed. Although he had never been Labour’s Deputy Leader, and had never contested a leadership election, he had been Blair’s heir apparent from 1994, and certainly from 1997. Despite occasional criticism of his political style, and disloyalty to Blair, there was never a credible rival for Brown.

Labour’s Deputy Leadership electionThe Deputy Leader was another matter, with six candidates being put forward ( Hillary Benn, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, and Alan Johnson). The election was conducted good humouredly, involved some debate over policy and Labour’s record (notably on Iraq) and probably benefitted the party, at least in terms of publicity. After a series of meetings around the country, and televised contests, Harriet Harman was finally announced to have narrowly won the contest, conducted using the alternative vote system. She trailed Jon Cruddas in the first round and Alan Johnson in rounds two to four as rival candidates were eliminated one by one. It was only after the next preferences of the third placed candidate John Cruddas were redistributed after he was eliminated in the penultimate round hat she finally gained a very close victory in the final round.

Table: the Election of Labour’s Deputy Leader, June 2007

Percentage of the vote in all three sections of the party combined:
First round Second round Third round Fourth round Final round
Hillary Benn 16.4 18.2 22.3 (eliminated)
Hazell Blears 11.8 (eliminated)
Jon Cruddas 19.4 20.4 23.9 30.1 (eliminated)
Peter Hain 15.3 16.4 (eliminated)
Harriet Harman 18.9 21.2 25.9 33.6 50.4
Alan Johnson 18.2 23.7 27.9 36.4 49.6

It is clear that Harman owed her election substantially to the support of ordinary Labour Party members, as she led among them right through the contest. Brown had not endorsed any of the candidates, although it emerged that whoever was elected would not necessarily become Deputy Prime Minister. So it proved. Brown immediately appointed Harriet Harman as Labour Party Chair, and she subsequently rejoined the Cabinet as Leader of the House, Lord Privy Seal and Minister for Women, but no Deputy Prime Minister was appointed.

In the absence of a contest for the leadership there was considerable media focus on the election of the Deputy Leader, and speculation over the outcome. However, past history suggests that the importance of Labour’s deputy leadership can be exaggerated, and the post has sometimes been more about symbolism than substance. Only one Deputy Leader has ever gone on to become Leader of the party (Michael Foot, elected as Deputy Leader in 1976 and Leader in 1980), and none has become Prime Minister.

The Blair Legacy

In the long run-up to the transition from Blair to Brown there was extensive controversy over Blair’s legacy. On one point there can be no dispute. He was an extremely long-serving leader. He had been Labour Leader for nearly 13 years and Prime Minister for more than ten, the second longest continuous period in the top job since the premiership of Lord Liverpool (1812-27), and before that, William Pitt (the Younger) and Robert Walpole. Only Margaret Thatcher had stayed in the post continuously for longer, although both Lord Salisbury and William Gladstone held the job longer if separate spells in Number 10 are added together. He had also led his party in three successive election victories, and an unprecedented spell in power for Labour.

In his first term he had remained an extremely popular leader, as confirmed by an almost continuous strong lead in the opinion polls and the scale of the second election victory, almost a repeat of the 1997 landslide. He had presided over an apparently successful economy, although this was more attributable to his Chancellor, extensive constitution reform, the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and the beginning of substantial additional spending on health and education. He had also made his mark in foreign policy, particularly over Kosovo, in partnership with US President Bill Clinton. However, his second term became overshadowed by the lead up to, and aftermath of, the Iraq War, which split the country and his party.

Blair bounced back briefly immediately after the 2005 election. He played a major role in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for London, and successfully chaired the G8 meeting of world leaders, where he pushed for more debt relief and international aid. In the midst of this he reacted with appropriate gravity to the terrible London bombings of July, although some critics argued that his foreign policy had made Britain a target for terrorism. In 2007 his efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland were finally crowned when Ian Paisely’s DUP incredibly combined in a new power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein. Yet despite major additional spending on health and education, the divisive public service reforms of his government nevertheless alienated much of the medical and educational profession, and lost his party the popular lead on these issues that they had long enjoyed. The long-running ‘cash for peerages’ scandal cast a shadow over his last year and led his party to be regarded as ‘more sleazy than the Tories.’ However, Blair’s legacy continued to be soured above all by the bloody aftermath of the Iraq war, the continuing death toll of British soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the growing threat of terrorism in Britain, that some attributed to Blair’s close partnership with George W Bush.

Even so, the transition of power was handled smoothly and skilfully. Both Blair and Brown were warmly received by the special Labour Party conference in June 2007 and Blair himself received a remarkable standing ovation in the House of Commons at his final Prime Minister’s question, in which the official Conservative opposition and the Liberal Democrats generously joined.

It is almost certainly far too early to reach any balanced verdict on Blair’s premiership and his legacy. Much will depend on the record of his successors, and the longer term outcome of processes that Blair’s government presided over – the constitutional changes, the public service reforms, the Irish peace process, but above all perhaps the foreign policy for which he bears personal responsibility.

The new Brown Government

There was much talk of a change in style when Brown formally became Prime Minister on June 27 th 2007. In his first announcements he also promised changes in substance. Some of this was clear in the new Cabinet he put together.

Box: The Labour Cabinet, June 2007

Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service Gordon Brown

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling

Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband

Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Jack Straw

Secretary of State for the Home Department Jacqui Smith

Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Scotland Des Browne

Secretary of State for Health Alan Johnson

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Hilary Benn

Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander

Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform John Hutton

Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal, Minister for Women

and Labour Chair Harriet Harman

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain

Secretary of State for Transport Ruth Kelly

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears

Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Chief Whip Geoff Hoon

Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls

Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Ed Miliband

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport James Purnell

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward

Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council Baroness Ashton

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham

Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills John Denham

Also attending Cabinet

Minister for the Olympics and London Tessa Jowell

Lords Chief Whip and Captain of the Gentlemen at Arms Lord Grocott

Attorney General Baroness Scotland

Minister for Housing Yvette Cooper

Minister for Africa, Asia and UN Mark Malloch-Brown

This Cabinet should be compared with that described in British Politics (2006). See especially Box 11.5, page 190, and associated analysis.

Preliminary analysis of Brown’s first Cabinet

In terms of personnel this is a very different Cabinet from that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Only one Cabinet Minister stays in the same job, Des Browne at Defence. No fewer than eight of Blair’s last Cabinet are no longer Cabinet Ministers, although of these, Tessa Jowell. will still attend Cabinet. It is a younger Cabinet, but one including fewer women. However, Jacqui Smith has become the first female Home Secretary. Other eye-catching appointments include David Miliband, as Britain’s youngest Foreign Secretary for thirty years, while his brother Ed Miliband also enters the Cabinet, and the promotion of Brown’s close ally Ed Balls, to take charge of the new Department of Children, Schools and Families. The appointment of the former Conservative MP Shaun Woodward as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the return to government of John Denham, who resigned over Iraq in 2003, have also provoked some comment.

The most significant changes in the machinery of government involve the division of the old Education and Skills Department into two. Responsibility for schools is combined with children and families, while higher education is linked with innovation and skills. The functions of the old Trade and Industry Department have been split, and there is a new Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Brown also talked of bringing in talent from outside the party, making approaches to senior Liberal Democrats including former party leader Paddy Ashdown, who was reputedly offered a Cabinet post and the veteran former Labour and SDP stalwart and Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams. Secret talks with Menzies Campbell and overtures to individuals were made public, and may have done no harm to Brown but seem to have damaged the Campbell and his party. In the event, Brown recruited several Liberal Democrats as advisers, including Lord Lester and Lady Julia Neuberger, and perhaps Lady Williams as well. He has also remarkably recruited the former director general of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones as a junior minister, who will apparently take the Labour whip in the Lords without being required to join the party.

A new government?

Gordon Brown is a new Prime Minister with a different style from Blair, but is this really a new government? The Conservative opposition and other critics deny that it is. They point out that it is the same party in government as for the last ten years. Gordon Brown, the longest serving Chancellor of the Exchequer, played a central role in Blair’s government throughout, and also shares collective responsibility for policies and decisions taken by that government, including its foreign policy and the Iraq war. Some of his new Cabinet are far from new. Jack Straw has been a key figure in Cabinet since 1997, and others such as Alistair Darling, Geoff Hoon, and Harriet Harman are familiar faces, even if a Brown has promoted a number of others who are relatively unknown by the wider public. One advantage that Brown has over his predecessor is that he is not faced by a powerful rival in his Cabinet. There should be no repetition of the dysfunctional Blair-Brown feud. In that respect, Brown should find handling the Cabinet easier than Blair sometimes did. Yet Conservative critics have argued that there is no-one of sufficient stature to stand up to Brown in Cabinet.

The Brown ‘bounce’

An early result of the new government is the Brown ‘bounce’ that some had predicted, with Labour regaining a lead over the Conservatives in some opinion polls, provoking some speculation of the prospects for the early General Election, that the Conservative opposition and other critics had earlier demanded.

Brown benefited from the extensive publicity the well-handled ‘smooth transition’ secured. He also gained an unexpected bonus when a long-serving Conservative MP, Quentin Davies, defected to Labour on the eve of the handover. Davies published his letter to David Cameron’s, under whose leadership he claimed, ‘the Conservative party appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything or to stand for anything.’ (The Guardian, 27 June 2007). Davies had been one of a diminishing band of pro-European Conservatives who had supported the leadership bids of Kenneth Clarke, and his increasing disaffection was known. Even so the timing of his defection, on the eve of Brown officially becoming Prime Minister, and the extensive damaging criticisms of his former party, were a propaganda gift for Brown and his party. ‘Crossing the floor’ has been an occasional and irregular feature of British politics (see for example British Politics Table 7.1 p.116).

Brown also gained generally favourable publicity from his Cabinet and wider government appointments and his early political pronouncements (see above). These contributed to the impression that this was not just a new Prime Minister at the helm, but a new government with a different style promising changes in policy. The media and opposition parties also approved the sober determined reaction of Brown and his new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith to renewed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, which were evidently timed to greet the new Prime Minister and his government. Nevertheless, these are early days. All new Prime Ministers tend to enjoy a ‘honeymoon’ period. How long Brown’s ‘honeymoon’ lasts remains to be seen. Even so, party politics have been transformed in the short run at least.

Should there be an early election?

The Conservative opposition, some of the media, and the wider public have urged that there should be an immediate election. Brown, they argue, has not been elected by anyone, even his own party. The last point is in marked contrast to the recent hard-fought elections of David Cameron and Menzies Campbell as leaders of opposition parties. Perhaps from the perspective of public relations it would have been better had Brown faced and defeated an opponent for the Labour leadership, although there can be very little doubt that he would have won handsomely. The opportunity for a challenger was there, and briefly it appeared that a left-wing opponent might be able to contest the election, but neither former minister Michael Meacher nor backbencher John McDonnell separately or together could secure the backing of enough Labour MPs to mount a challenge.

The demand for a General Election following a change in Prime Minister has routinely been made by opposition parties, but rarely conceded. When John Major became Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990, he resisted opposition demands for an election, which he only finally called when the full five years of the Parliament was almost up in April 1992. Similarly, demands for an early election were resisted when James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson as Labour Prime Minister in 1976, and when Harold Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden as Conservative Prime Minister in 1957. A General Election, it is argued, chooses a Parliament, and only indirectly a government from the party with a majority in the House of Commons, and while that party retains its overall majority there is no compelling reason why a change in personnel should require a fresh election.

Nevertheless, some have suggested that Brown might call an early election to capitalise on his apparent lead in the polls that might not last. This raises another issue, whether Prime Ministers should be able to call an election at any time of their choosing. In most countries this is not possible, and some have argued that there should be fixed term Parliaments in the United Kingdom (see British Politics pp. 185-6). Brown has not suggested this, but he has surprisingly proposed that the dissolution of parliament should be dependent on a parliamentary vote, as part of a package of constitutional proposals.

Prospects for the parties

Labour

Brown’s Labour government faces many obvious challenges, the most immediate of which is the continued terrorism threat and the response to it. Some argue that a change in British foreign policy could help to alleviate the threat, and there are some indications that Brown and the new Foreign Secretary David Miliband may favour such a change, but they have little freedom of manoeuvre. It will be difficult to disengage early from Iraq, still less Afghanistan.

The economy remains a central issue for Labour, not least because Brown presided over it for so long, and can hardly blame any problems that might emerge on the previous administration. He appears to have been a successful (or perhaps a lucky) Chancellor, but if anything goes wrong with the economy over the next two years this will reflect adversely on both Brown and his party. As pointed out in British Politics (p. 374) ‘Brown’s prospects of …winning a fourth successive election for Labour may still depend on the performance of the British economy.’ (See British Politics chapter 20 ‘Managing the Economy’ for more on Brown’s stewardship of the economy).

Public services are almost equally important. Despite an unprecedented increase in funding for health and education, Blair’s government came into increasingly bitter conflict with sections of the medical and teaching professions, and failed to convince the public that services had really improved. Brown and his new ministers have little time to improve relations with the professions and turn public perception around, but it likely a crucial battleground between the parties at the next election.

Brown has already given a clear indication of his intention to press on with constitutional reform. Radical constitutional change was a feature of Blair’s first term, but the pace thereafter faltered and problems increased (British Politics, chapter 10). Brown has committed himself to increasing the powers of parliament and has dared to suggest a written constitution. Yet Brown still faces all the constitutional problems that Blair’s government failed to solve: Lords reform, electoral reform, relations with devolved governments and with Europe. All this is very important for the future of British government, and perhaps even the survival of the United Kingdom, bearing in mind the nationalist advance in Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales. However the electoral implications are more questionable as constitutional issues seem to have little impact on voters.

The Liberal Democrats

Although Gordon Brown and Menzies Campbell are personally close, it is the Liberal Democrats who seem to have suffered most from the predicted ‘Brown bounce.’ The Liberal Democrats had not benefited from their own leadership election as the Conservatives had done, and Campbell has struggled as leader, despite the respect he had earlier earned as his party’s foreign affairs spokesperson. The party had gained some public support at the expense of Labour as a result of its opposition to the Iraq war, and the change of emphasis in foreign policy under Brown and Miliband might help to win back Labour deserters. Yet at the same time the Liberal Democrats are sometimes perceived as too close to Labour. They were Labour’s coalition partners in Scotland until the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament and were briefly in coalition with Labour in Wales also. Before the 1997 Labour landslide Blair had intended a coalition with the Liberal Democrats at Westminster. Thus the Conservatives can plausibly allege that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for Labour (despite Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalitions on some local councils). Brown’s offer of government posts to Liberal Democrats, whether it was simply generous or more Machiavellian, strengthened this perception. Many of the seats won by the Liberal Democrats in recent elections came from the votes of disaffected former Conservatives who have no love for Labour, and they could be vulnerable to a Conservative recovery, more particularly if the Liberal Democrats are identified in the voters’ minds as actual or potential Labour allies.

The Conservatives

From the resignation of Michael Howard and the leadership election of 2005 until the early summer of 2007 the Conservative Party had enjoyed its best period for more than a decade. The party gained from the publicity surrounding the leadership election, and David Cameron enjoyed a favourable press. His appeal reached out beyond the dwindling Conservative core vote, and he appeared to be successful in transforming his party’s image. Some even suggested that Cameron was Blair’s real heir. Yet others damagingly associated Cameron with the ‘spin’ associated with Blair, and he was sometimes accused of being ‘policy-lite’ or ‘all spin and no substance.’ He also began to upset some traditional Conservatives. When Cameron and his then education spokesperson David Willitts distanced themselves from the party’s support for grammar schools, it provoked a storm of opposition from pro-Conservative newspapers as well as MPs and party members. Cameron faces the same problem as his predecessors as leader – reaching out to the centre ground of British politics without alienating his own core voters. Some leading Conservatives still think Brown will be easier to defeat than Blair, because Brown lacks Blair’s communication skills, and can be portrayed as unreconstructed ‘old Labour’. Much may depend on the personal confrontation between Brown and Cameron in the period leading up to the next election, whenever that is.