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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 14:56 GMT
Gordon Brown: Chancellor

Mark Mardell

The biggest political cliché in the book is that the prime minister is first among equals.

In that case Gordon Brown runs a close second, not that any of his colleagues would be rash enough to claim to be his equal.

He is the only minister who can be certain of remaining in his present job if Labour wins a second term.

Currently, his most pressing task is masterminding the general election campaign. That is alongside running the economy, guarding the right to decide Britain's entry into the euro and binding New Labour to its traditional supporters.

If there wasn't a scrap, it wouldn't be Gordon

If the second biggest cliché in the political book happened, and the prime minister fell under a bus, Mr Brown would get the job, although not without a struggle - or accusations that he was driving the bus.

Petrol policy led to fuel crisis

His Budgets have been widely applauded and he would claim credit for Britain's economic stability.

Yet his insistence on political double accounting, re-announcing spending plans as though they were fresh, has added to the impression that this government can be casual with the truth.

cut fuel tax banner
Brown's policies helped fuel the petrol crisis
And it was his policy on petrol taxes that led to the government's biggest real upset: the fuel crisis.

Behind him is a mighty machine. For decades some have regarded the Treasury as an over-powerful and over-mighty department, but this has not stopped its influence growing dramatically under Gordon Brown.

Ministers in other departments resent the tentacles they see sneaking in from the Treasury, dictating not only how much money they get but how they spend it.

He's hugely controversial within the party, inspiring hatred and loyalty in equal measure

Early in the Parliament Tony Blair was upset by reports that Gordon Brown saw himself as the "domestic" prime minister, as if the chancellor was getting on with serious policy while Mr Blair performed an almost ceremonial role.

For someone with so much power Mr Brown can seem curiously vulnerable, insecure about his political position, easily bruised by criticism.

picture of Whelan
The departure of Charlie Whelan has helped ease tensions between Brown and Blair
Sometimes an almost tangible, brooding resentment seeped out of No 11, seriously harming the smooth running of the government. This improved when the chancellor's close friend and spin doctor Charlie Whelan left the government in the wake of the Mandelson Affair Mark One.

Mr Whelan is much missed by journalists, but most of the damaging briefing has stopped, proving that while Mrs Thatcher might have been right that every prime minister needs a Willie, a chancellor can do without a Charlie.

Soap opera

One of the government's lowest moments was the accusation by an un-named aide of the prime minister that Gordon Brown was "psychologically flawed".

It is certainly true that Mr Brown has been at the centre of most of the in-fighting that has undermined the government.

In the long-running New Labour soap opera Gordon fell out with his old friend Tony when Tony got the top job, was spurred to hate Peter, and dislikes Robin for some slight lost in the mist of time.

He is hugely controversial within the party, inspiring hatred and loyalty in equal measure.

There is no question that many aides and MPs would see themselves as Blairites or Brownites, although the divisions sometimes seem as small as those between the warring factions in Gulliver's Travels who fought over which end a boiled egg should be opened.

Most of the policies that outraged the left in this Parliament... are Brown-inspired

On the whole it is those who worry that Tony Blair has moved too far from Labour's roots, and has too little substance, who look to Gordon Brown for backbone and a bit of redistribution of wealth.

This is at first sight is curious.

Mr Brown shared not only an office with Tony Blair in the long years of opposition but a 'project', a determination to change the party beyond recognition.

Sleight of hand

This is not just history: most of the policies that outraged the left in this Parliament, from social security payments for single parents to the partial privatisation of air traffic control, are Brown-inspired.

His background in the Scottish Labour movement means he can pull off this sleight of hand, deftly wrapping himself in the Red Flag and uttering the "S" word when the need arises.

Pic of no 10 downing street
A good election result may bring Brown a step closer to his ultimate goal
But it goes deeper than that. The Conservatives have a point when they accuse Mr Brown of imposing stealth taxes on the middle classes.

Yet many Labour activists quietly raise a glass to Mr Brown for covertly redistributing a bit of wealth and building social democracy without too many people noticing.

If Labour loses the election, buckets of ordure will be tipped over Mr Brown's head. If it wins he will be gearing up for the next big fight: whether or not to go into the euro.

If there wasn't a scrap, it wouldn't be Gordon.



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