Gordon Brown, the British chancellor of the exchequer, has often joked that "there are two kinds of chancellor: those who fail, and those who get out in time."
He will have had in mind not only his Labour predecessors, such as James Callaghan in 1964 to 1967, and Denis Healey (1974 to 1979), both of whom faced serious currency crises that tarnished their period in office. There was also the more recent example of Nigel Lawson, chancellor under Margaret Thatcher from 1983 to 1989, who was for a while feted as having performed "an economic miracle" but whose "boom" turned to "bust" and who saw his reputation badly scarred.
Brown has been chancellor since May 1997, and is already in the record books as the longest-serving British finance minister since Nicholas Vansittart (1812 to 1823). He too has been widely feted for presiding over happy years of reasonable economic growth, high employment and low inflation.
His record and reputation made an essential contribution to the British Labour Party's election victory on May 5. Indeed, so important was the chancellor considered to be that he had to be brought back to the center of the campaign after Prime Minister Tony Blair had sidelined him and tried to go it alone. The early part of the Labour campaign was disastrous, but picked up as soon as Brown was invited back to support the prime minister.
What both the campaign and the election itself showed only too clearly was that Blair had been badly tarnished by joining US President George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq, and there were many voters for whom the election became a referendum on Blair himself.
When calling the chancellor back, Blair assured him that, contrary to his original intention, he would not move Brown from the treasury to the foreign office after a victorious election. Brown would not have been prepared to move, because, as the country knows to its cost, Blair has been his own foreign secretary, with disastrous consequences. Moreover the Blair camp had widely advertised the plan as a demotion and an intended insult to Brown.
So here we are, with Blair re-elected with a much-reduced majority, and very diminished authority. Indeed, the scene in the UK's corridors of power is quite remarkable, with most people believing Blair's prime ministerial days are numbered, and the courtiers already behaving as though the man with the real power is Brown.
Some commentators are saying that Brown, who has been agitating for years to "take over" the premiership, might not wish to do so before a referendum on the European Treaty, expected next year. But if Brown really wants to wait so long, one must begin to wonder whether, as a number of skeptics believe, he is ever going to get that much-coveted job. He ought already to have learned how reputations can change.
After all, he was the leading contender to succeed the Labour leader John Smith in the early 1990s, but at the time of Smith's untimely death, Tony Blair had pulled ahead in the popularity stakes. There are undoubtedly those who ask whether Brown, for all his ambition, really has the killer instinct.
The big question
Now, after such a successful period for the economy, the big question is whether, if Blair is not forced out sooner rather than later, something might go wrong on the economic front and Brown's reputation might suffer. For there can be little doubt that Brown would be elected leader by the Labour Party if the vacancy arose soon.
As one who has covered the UK economic scene for many years, I wonder how long the good news can continue. History suggests that it can't go on like this, and certainly there has been a sharp slowdown in the growth of consumer spending as people's incomes have been hit by higher taxes and interest rates, and the impact of the end of the house-price boom on their sense of wellbeing.
Moreover the news seems to get gloomier and gloomier from the eurozone, which is by far the UK's biggest export market.
Nevertheless, the news from the Bank of England has been far from discouraging from Brown's point of view. At his quarterly press conference on the bank's inflation report, the governor Mervyn King painted a remarkably sanguine view of the outlook for the economy over the next year or so. As usual King emphasised that the outlook was full of uncertainties, and he certainly did not expect the growth of consumer spending to recover to the hectic pace of recent years.
But he saw a recovery, and seemed less concerned about so called "black holes" in the government finances than many outside commentators.
In the past, recessions in the UK have usually been caused by panic measures aimed at curbing an acceleration in inflation. The Bank does not seem to be worried, although it is careful to point to the usual caveats.
So Brown's luck may stay with him, But, personally, in his shoes I should like to move on as soon as possible.
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