By Steve Richards And Colin Brown
The Independent (London, England)
It is 7.45am at Labour's Millbank headquarters. Gordon Brown is late for the interview. He is still in a meeting, his second that day. The party's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, is visible through a glass panel having an intense exchange with Labour's focus group guru, Philip Gould. The youthful health minister Yvette Cooper rushes by. Earnest youngsters beaver away at their desks, occasionally shouting down phones or looking up at the never-ending TV coverage of the campaign. This is a workaholic's paradise. No wonder, when he finally arrives, Mr Brown looks happy.
"Sorry I'm late," he says with unapologetic glee. "I've been in our early- morning strategy meeting and then a pre-pre-meeting on the press conference." He looks up at his loyal aide. "That reminds me, I mustn't be late for the pre-meeting on the conference."
On one level Mr Brown takes all this with a Presbyterian seriousness. These meetings are important to him. As in government, so in the campaign, he must keep his fingers on all that is happening.
On another level he cannot entirely suppress his sense of the ridiculous. "We'll be having pre-pre-pre-meetings soon!" he says, laughing. Then he laughs at the grim experience of the Conservatives' Malcolm Rifkind, who the day before had unveiled what he assumed would be a party poster. The wrong poster had been delivered. It turned out to be an advert for Tesco. "That is the worst nightmare for a politician," says Brown. His laughter is infectious. On television he should laugh more often.
Virtually without a pause he switches subject and tone. The torrent of words no longer evokes a farcical moment in Mr Rifkind's election campaign. Instead it focuses on Labour's manifesto launch this week.
Farce is not a danger for Labour at its launch. If anything, the event will be over rehearsed, over choreographed. The more potent danger for Labour is that its manifesto will be an anti-climax, dismissed as a tediously tame document for a government riding so high in the polls. Mr Brown is determined to get his retaliation in first. "In our manifesto we will be outlining 10 goals for the second term. They will be ambitious, progressive goals ranging from full employment to halving child poverty."
He selects "civic renewal" as a defining theme for Labour's second term. He mentions it four times in the interview. The related "renaissance of local government" is highlighted five times. This is the "goal" that captures his imagination. He will be making a keynote speech on the subject during the campaign. The great control freak in the Treasury has become preoccupied with the need to give power away. More precisely, he is worried about the growing affluence of London and the South-east in comparison with some of the other regions in England.
"We must decentralise power in England. We will put it quite clearly in our manifesto." He consults what seems to be a draft of the manifesto, presumably the final draft. There have been so many drafts already, but this must be it. "I will quote from the manifesto. We seek `higher quality services as we decentralise power. We want to give local councils more leeway to serve local needs.' We are going to give councils new investment and financial flexibility in return for higher performance. Regional development agencies will be given more power and accountability. Civic renewal is the great challenge for our decade."
He stresses repeatedly how closely he has worked on regional policy with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. "John has been interested in the regions of England for several years. I have been as well, partly through the work in Scotland in setting up the Parliament there."
Mr Brown is sensitive about his reputation for stealing the thunder of other colleagues. He does not want to alienate his most senior ministerial ally. Mr Brown and Mr Prescott have formed a close relationship in Government, although some believe that its success is based on the fact that Mr Brown always gets his way. …