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Britain's Leadership Battle Years in Making

Tony Blair's ally and enduring rival, Gordon Brown, tired of waiting to ascend. Now he has forced the issue -- and cast Labor into chaos.

September 10, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The photographs of the two men from the old days look like weathered yearbook snapshots, two fresh-faced politicians elected together to Parliament in 1983, their hair a little too long. One of them, a young man named Tony Blair, is beaming broadly; the other, Gordon Brown, looks studious and serious.

They shared an office for a time, eventually collaborating in drafting a new vision of what Britain's Labor Party should be, marrying its old trade union, socialist traditions with market principles. When the party leadership came up for grabs in 1994, both men wanted the job. Brown, especially, thought he had earned it.

"Basically, Brown was the senior partner. Brown had been in the party longer, had more sort of intellectual roots," said Nick Kochan, coauthor of "Gordon Brown: The First Year in Power." "Blair was Johnny-come-lately, trained as a barrister, had lots of charm and appeal and savoir-faire. Brown was rather retiring and awkward -- brainy, but bad at people."

The two reportedly struck an agreement: Blair would take the party leadership -- and soon, the leadership of the country -- and Brown would inherit later, being granted responsibility for social and economic policymaking in the meantime.

More than a decade later, Brown tired of waiting. As chancellor of the exchequer -- Britain's treasury chief -- he has been one of Blair's most important allies and his most enduring rival during the prime minister's nine years in office. But he finally struck last week, forcing Blair to announce his departure within the year.

The move left the Labor Party in chaos and virtually guaranteed that Blair's final months in office would be marked by a bruising battle for leadership of the party both men helped to shape.

On Saturday, Blair appealed to the party to leave behind the vicious internal sniping of the last week and remake Labor's message to suit a changed Britain.

"There was something sort of irredeemably old-fashioned about it, I'm afraid: the attacks on the leader, the leader responds.... The only thing we didn't have was the smoke-filled room, and that's because we banned those," said Blair, whose entry into the room of party supporters was met with a standing ovation.

"We're three years away from an election, and we can remake ourselves," he said. "But we can only do it not by behaving like we did last week, but by behaving like we did when we were hungry for power, before 1997, when we understood that what mattered was the people and the country, not ourselves."

The story of Blair's last months as prime minister, like the years that preceded them, cannot be written without reference to his relationship with Brown, the brooding and brilliant son of a Scottish minister who both guided Blair's Britain to economic vigor and waited resentfully in Blair's shadow for the day he would be allowed to lead.

The political fortunes of Britain for years have depended on the interplay between these two powerful politicians who have worked closely together for two decades, sometimes while barely speaking to each other.

"Each of them and their acolytes spilling bile into the media [about each other] is pretty much normal behavior for them," said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics.

"At one level, they're like an elderly married couple who kind of hover between a sort of final divorce, which would shock everybody, and occasionally getting back together and everything's fine. There's an element of can't live with and can't live without each other," Travers said.

The marriage of opposites seemed to work. After Blair became prime minister in 1997, Brown proceeded to take expert command of the economy, handing over responsibility for interest-rate setting to the Bank of England and charting nine years of steady growth, while Blair focused on high-profile foreign policy initiatives and plunged into overhauling healthcare and education.

But well into his third term as prime minister, Blair had steadily refused to either step aside or set a date for when he planned to, leaving Brown, aides said, feeling frustrated and betrayed -- all the more so as the party's poll numbers plummeted in the face of Blair's increasingly unpopular alliance with the U.S. on the war in Iraq.

Brown's supporters have been urging him to launch an attack on Blair for months. Blair's backers warned that attacking the sitting prime minister of a successful party 16 months after he had been reelected would amount to political suicide for all involved.

"Blair's star has really waned, ever since the end of the [initial phase of the Iraq] war and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction. And yet each time it seemed to me there was a moment where Brown might have moved, he stood back," Kochan said.

Even last week, he said, Brown fell short of demanding Blair's immediate resignation, although reports have circulated of a private deal under which Blair would step down in the spring.

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