Gordon Brown’s first few days in 10 Downing Street have been marked by his determination to tippex Tony Blair out of history and distinguish himself politically from his predecessor.
That’s why Brown started off by removing the power to instruct civil servants that Blair had given his chief political advisers, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. That’s why we’ve heard so much about the doubts of the new foreign secretary, David Miliband, over the wisdom of invading Iraq.
The aim behind this strategy is pretty obvious. Brown wants to convert the inevitable bounce he got in the opinion polls simply by virtue of replacing Blair into a permanent and pronounced lead over the Tories. This would allow him to call an early general election, probably sometime next year, and win his own mandate as prime minister.
To achieve this aim, Brown has to lure back some of the millions who deserted Labour in 2001 and 2005. Since it was Blair who drove them away, Brown has to rubbish him as much as possible. Personal inclination and political interest coincide here perfectly.
So far this strategy hasn’t worked out too badly. For example, when the terrorist attempts took place three weeks ago, it helped the government that it wasn’t fronted by a blood-boltered Blair ranting about “Islamofascists”.
But we should have no illusions that there has been any real improvement in policy. Under Brown, as under Blair, the government continues to deny that invading Iraq has made Britain more at risk of terrorist attack.
Moreover, the new policy of depoliticising the terrorists by portraying them as “simple criminals” doesn’t simply support this denial. It makes it easier for Downing Street and the home office to bully Muslim leaders into line.
This example points to the fundamental contradiction in Brown’s strategy. He needs to distance himself from Blair, but – when it comes to matters of substance – he is as much the architect of New Labour as Blair.
Blair is deeply hated because he is a self-righteous liar. But he’s also hated for his policies – tailing US imperialism abroad, implementing neoliberalism at home. Blair may have taken the lead in foreign policy, but Brown backed him up and was, notoriously, master of the domestic front.
But it is in foreign affairs that Brown’s balancing act looks like it is already beginning to unravel. Over the weekend, he had to intervene to rein back two ministers over-eager to distance the new government from George Bush.
International development secretary Douglas Alexander made a speech in Washington calling for a foreign policy that was “multilateralist, not unilateralist” – a coded attack on Bush’s strategy. He was followed by the new foreign office minister Mark Malloch Brown, an open critic of the Iraq war when he worked at the United Nations. He told the Daily Telegraph that the British and US governments wouldn’t be “joined at the hip” under Brown.
Brown moved quickly to slap them down. His chief of staff, Tom Scolar, wrote to all cabinet ministers reminding them of the importance of the “special relationship” with the US.
Brown weighed in himself, saying, “We will not allow people to separate us from the US.” Miliband underlined this, adding that the link with the US “is the single most important bilateral relationship” Britain has.
This is likely to be the pattern of Brown’s government – efforts symbolically to distance itself from Blair undercut by continuity in terms of actual policy.
Electoral factors help to dictate this – the next election, whenever it comes, is likely to be a ferociously fought and narrowly won battle.
David Cameron, having sought to position himself as Blair’s true successor, will haunt Brown’s every step, ready to denounce any genuine step he takes away from New Labour.
More fundamentally, however, Brown sincerely believes in neoliberalism and the US alliance. This means his attempt to repackage himself as a break with Blairism is bound to fail.