The Homburg factor: the Blair/Brown mystery solved

Whenever someone intelligent seems to be behaving oddly, the hypothesis has to be that they know what they’re doing and that you simply haven’t figured it out. (Sometimes clever people do barmy things, but that’s not the best initial bet.)

So it is with Tony Blair and the Succession. If — as is widely believed — there is some kind of deal between him and Gordon Brown that the latter is the anointed successor, then Blair’s declared intention of serving “a full term” as Prime Minister seems bizarre. If he really wanted Brown to succeed and have a fighting chance of winning the next election, then there must be an orderly transition fairly soon (and certainly no more than 18 months from now). But this is not how Blair — steaming fanatically ahead with his reform-or-bust agenda — is behaving. Why?

Watching Brown in action this week as Adair Turner’s sensible report on the pensions crisis was published, an obvious thought occurred to me (I’m slow on the uptake, alas). It’s this: Blair doesn’t want Brown to succeed him, and he’s going to do everything in his power to stop him becoming leader!

What’s more, he’s right. If Labour goes into the next election with Brown facing David Cameron as the Tory leader, then they will lose.

Several reasons for this prediction. The first is that the closer Brown gets to the limelight the less attractive he looks. He’s a clever but inflexible thinker, and very dogmatic once he has taken up a position. His reaction to the Turner proposals shows this, and he’s determined to sabotage them. As the Bagehot column in this week’s Economist puts it,

Many people are uneasy about the way Mr Brown conducts business, and pensions have brought out the worst in him.

It matters little who leaked a letter last week from the chancellor to Lord Turner, the head of the Pensions Commission that published its long-awaited findings on Wednesday. The letter’s purpose was to cast doubt on Lord Turner’s sums. As everyone in Westminster knows, Mr Brown has been quietly denigrating the commission for more than a year.

He was unhappy from the moment its remit was expanded to include the future of state pensions as well as occupational schemes, although how the one could be considered without the other was never clear. Most recently, through anonymous briefings, he has attacked the affordability of its main proposals. The chancellor has been irked by Lord Turner’s criticism of the way his pet means-tested pension credits discourage saving and he is resentful of the commission’s intrusion on his Treasury turf.

The second reason for thinking that Brown would be an electoral liability is that he looks terrible on television. Of course, this shouldn’t matter, but it does (see Neil Postman’s wonderful book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, for chapter and verse). He’s beginning to look like my maternal grandfather, a solemn businessman who wore a Homburg hat. In four years’ time, this effect will be even more pronounced. And Brown will appear to be even more boring when he appears on television then.

Boredom is the elephant in the room of British politics. The electorate is, in the main, entirely uninterested in politics. It complains about the government, of course, but in the main it is hard to stir up electors on ideological or policy grounds. They put up with the Tories, for example, for 18 years, and eventually threw them out not because the party was intellectually and morally bankrupt (as we pointy-headed intellectuals fondly imagine), but basically because people had become tired of seeing all those old faces trotting out the same old story.

Now spool forward four years to 2009. In the Labour corner will be dull, monotonic, dark-suited, Homburg-hatted Brown rabbitting on about the timing of the economic cycle, the importance of means-tested benefits and how he was right about pensions all along. Yawn, zzzzz…. For the Tories, there will be a young, smooth-talking snake-oil salesman named Cameron. Could this be the nightmare scenario that Blair foresees, and is determined to avoid?