Sat, Sep 09, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Brown's smile betrays his ambition

UK BATTLE The struggle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for prime minister came out into the open this week as a poll revealed a majority want Blair out this year

AGENCIES , LONDON

The most arresting political image to emerge this week was not a picture of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who on Thursday clung to his job by announcing -- sort of -- when he planned to leave it. It was a photograph of Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, driving away from an earlier meeting with Blair, an enormous grin across his normally glum face.

When it comes to the complicated, rivalrous and ever-changing relationship between the once-sprightly prime minister and the buttoned-up chancellor, the smile said it all. Theirs is a zero-sum partnership: The story of Blair's slow downward slide is every bit the story of Brown's dogged ascent.

It is also a story of two people who by all accounts cannot stand each other but have remained together nonetheless.

"They hate each other -- really, madly, deeply," said William Keegan, the author of The Prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown. "It's been a peculiar bad marriage."

If so, the two have stayed a couple not for the sake of the children, but for the sake of a government they both want desperately to run.

The unraveling of what was once a solid personal and political alliance is generally accepted to have begun in the summer of 1994, when the two had dinner at Granita, a restaurant in north London. Neither has revealed what exactly was said, but the result was that Brown agreed to remove himself from the Labor Party leadership race, clearing the way for Blair.

In return, Blair promised to give Brown a big role in any future Labor government and then eventually to step aside, allowing Brown to take his place as party leader and, presumably, prime minister.

But it turned out to be a devil's bargain.

"It was a huge mistake to do that deal," the writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who is close to members of Blair's inner circle, said of the 1994 pact.

"Blair should have said, `You and I are colleagues, and we both want to be leader of our party, and the only way for us to clear the air would be for us both to run,"' Wheatcroft said in an interview. "Brown would have been badly beaten by Blair, and it would have enormously changed the relationship. Blair wouldn't have felt beholden, and Brown wouldn't have felt betrayed."

At first, Blair seemed to be on track to keep his end of the deal. He made Brown the chancellor of the exchequer, or treasury secretary, handing him extraordinary autonomy and power. Brown has secured his position -- and bolstered Blair's sometimes sagging political authority -- by presiding over an unusually prosperous period of low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment.

But the years have passed and Blair has stayed on and on, and Brown has had to wait and wait.

"Blair has broken a number of promises," Keegan said in an interview. "He gave Brown the impression that he'd stand down after his second term, and now he's in his third term. Brown feels he has been let down far too often."

Meanwhile, a poll published in British newspaper the Daily Telegraph yesterday showed a majority of the British public think Prime Minister Tony Blair should resign from office this year.

Of the 1,504 people surveyed by YouGov for the newspaper on Wednesday and Thursday -- mostly before Blair publicly vowed to resign within a year -- 58 percent said they thought he should resign this year, compared to 36 percent when YouGov last asked the question in February.

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