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Brown fears that Blair is about to betray him - again

By Peter Oborne

(Filed: 04/07/2004)

For six years Derek Scott occupied one of the most delicate jobs in any British government. He was economic adviser to the Prime Minister. This post placed him right in the middle of the biggest killing field in modern British politics: whichever party is in power.

Regardless of the personalities involved, the relationship between 10 Downing Street and the Treasury is a form of institutionalised carnage. Fifteen years ago Sir Alan Walters performed the same role for Margaret Thatcher that Derek Scott did for Tony Blair. Walters was eventually obliged to quit, setting in motion a series of events that led to the destruction of the prime minister and a catastrophic split within the Tory Party.

So it is understandable, perhaps even commendable, that Scott should have chosen a more congenial route than Walters. He resisted the temptation, to which Walters fatally succumbed, to vent his own views in public. If Scott took issue with the Chancellor, he kept his thoughts to himself. Instead, Derek Scott was bashful to the extent of invisibility. Indeed he was so silent and discreet that many Blairites despaired, and yearned for his replacement by someone more astringent.

By contrast, his presence came to be privately welcomed by Gordon Brown. The Treasury treated Scott with total contempt. "Ever heard of Derek Scott?" one Treasury official mused. "Don't worry, neither has Gordon." Scott's presence in Downing Street was an embarrassing symbol of the total dominance of the Treasury when it came to economic matters.

So The Sunday Telegraph's political editor, Patrick Hennessey, deserved congratulations for his scoop, secured last Sunday, that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, was attempting to censor a book by Derek Scott. Given the deadening title of Off Whitehall and due to be published just ahead of the Labour conference this autumn, it contained information about everyday life in 10 Downing Street which Sir Andrew felt should not be put before the general public.

It seemed no great matter and nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed there seemed every reason to suppose that, if anyone was to be damaged by Scott's "revelations", it would be the Prime Minister himself. Mr Brown may well emerge as churlish, insufferably rude and quite impossible to deal with from Scott's forthcoming volume. Indeed, it would be staggering if he did not: these characteristics are all well-known and documented. But the real loser looked certain to be Mr Blair. Friends of Scott suggest that his book may well have given an unwelcome prominence to Mr Blair's breathtaking economic illiteracy, and unhelpfully highlight his chronic lack of guts when dealing with his out-of-control Chancellor.

Path-breaking though the Sunday Telegraph story undoubtedly was, it was only turned into a political event by the reaction by the Treasury. The Chancellor's official spokesman's words last Sunday dripped with vitriol, and deserve to be quoted in full. The spokesman declared that "the deliberate peddling of lies and distortions about Europe, tax and public spending, and the management of public finances is deliberately designed and orchestrated to put the Treasury in a bad light and will not be tolerated".

Mystery surrounds this explosion from the Chancellor. The Treasury, when informed of the story early the previous day by The Sunday Telegraph, had seemed to bear the news of Scott's forthcoming indiscretions with equanimity. Some senior members of the Brown camp blame the disproportionate if long-delayed reaction on Ian Austin, the Treasury spokesman. They say that had Ed Balls, Mr Brown's closest adviser for the past 10 years, been on duty none of this would have happened. But sadly Mr Balls was away, preparing for Wednesday's selection contest for the northern constituency of Normanton (which he won). There is perhaps some truth in this claim.

The fundamental reason for last week's eruption goes far deeper than the departure of Mr Balls. Since 1997 there has been a basic rule to Westminster politics. When Blair is up, Brown is down - and vice versa. Three months ago, with Mr Blair all over the shop on Iraq and the European Constitution, Mr Brown walked tall. Tragically for Mr Brown, the last three months have been very good for the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair's friends and supporters - a rather more numerous body than three months ago - now speak confidently of a third full term of office. John Reid speaks of a five-year plan for the health service only after which, it is inferred, Mr Blair might step down. Likewise it is reported that Cherie Blair, whose dislike for Mr Brown is matched only by Brown's contempt for her, reportedly talks of Mr Blair going "on and on". The Sunday newspapers were full of this kind of chatter, and there was some impertinent goading from inside the Blair camp that Mr Brown had shot his bolt, and lost his chance of ever becoming prime minister. This is the real reason for the intemperate and ill-judged announcement from the Treasury last Sunday afternoon.

But this renewed confidence that Mr Blair will remain Prime Minister into the indefinite future needs to be treated with caution. All the talk comes from figures - Charles Falconer, Cherie Blair, David Blunkett, John Reid etc - with a strong vested interest that Mr Blair should remain at Number 10. In the end it may amount to wishful thinking, no more than that. It does not take account of the events of last November.

Back then relations between Mr Brown and Mr Blair had broken down completely. With the aid of John Prescott, they were put back together. All sides agree that some kind of deal was struck, causing everyone to observe how much easier and better relations between Mr Blair and Mr Brown had become. The central mystery of British domestic politics remains the nature of the deal. Conventional wisdom holds that Mr Blair pledged to step down a year or two after next year's general election. But there is a logical problem with this account of events. It would force the Government into a cynical deception on the voters in next year's General Election, inviting them to vote for Mr Blair when they would in reality be getting Mr Brown.

In the heat of an election campaign, it is hard to get away with a lie as grand as this. Interviewers would be entitled to press the Prime Minister on his plans: he would find it hard to avoid giving an undertaking to stay in Downing Street. Such a deception might not disturb Mr Blair too greatly: after all he has told many similar lies in the past. But it ought to worry Mr Brown a great deal. For if Mr Blair wins the next election, he will win it with a mandate from the electorate to serve a full term. No private promise to a colleague could ever have half as much power as that - and Mr Brown knows that Mr Blair has often broken mere private promises before.

The only logical explanation of Mr Brown's good humour after last November's settlement is that Mr Blair indeed promised to quit before an election - most likely this summer. It is also the best explanation of his bad humour last week: he fears that he will be the victim of yet another Blair betrayal. But he should not plunge into despair. It remains just possible that Mr Blair will break the habit of a lifetime, keep his word, and quit in time for this autumn's Labour Party conference.

Peter Oborne is political editor of The Spectator