The Two Amigos; Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Put on a Great Show of Friendship. but Make No Mistake. They Are Bitter Rivals, and So the Question: When Does Tony Step Down?

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Byline: Stryker McGuire (With Emily Flynn)

An election was coming, and Rupert Murdoch was uneasy. The good news for the Australian-born magnate, whose London papers helped propel the British Labour Party to victory eight years ago, was that Tony Blair was on course to win on May 5. The bad news: the Labour prime minister was also under pressure to turn the keys to 10 Downing Street over to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown early in what would be a historic third term. "Murdoch was nervous about Brown taking over from Tony, about his tax-and-spend ways," a source close to Blair told NEWSWEEK.

So even before the election campaign got underway, Murdoch sought reassurance from Blair--and got it. According to the source, Blair told Murdoch either directly or through an intermediary that he "would stay on well into his third term." Was Murdoch mollified? Though his newspapers have not made any endorsements, they are expected to get behind the sure favorite, Labour. But that doesn't mean that Murdoch will take his eye off Brown. U.S. economist Irwin Stelzer, Murdoch's so-called unofficial ambassador to London, fired a shot across Brown's bow at the end of March in a column in one of Murdoch's papers, The Times. Brown, Stelzer wrote, "does not yet understand how to equip his nation to play in the unforgiving game of international competition." The headline? why brown is wrong for no. 10.

The Labour Party should be counting its blessings. Nobody is talking about Labour losing the election. And nobody is talking much about the opposition, the once indomitable Conservatives whom Labour demolished in 1997. What everybody is talking about is Blair and Brown--and the troubles that might follow May 5. Blair said last autumn that he would not serve a fourth term. So on May 6, his 52nd birthday, he becomes a lame duck and Brown in all likelihood becomes prime minister-in-waiting. In that spirit, the great odd couple of British politics have set aside their differences to mount Britain's first-ever two-for-one campaign: vote Blair, get Brown.

But what does "getting Brown" mean? Polls show Brown is more popular than Blair; in Britain, it's better to have run a healthy economy than an unpopular war. But the people know him as an able fiscal manager, and not much else. In that sense, says Stephan Shakespeare of the YouGov polling firm, Brown is "a cipher outside the Westminster village." Yet even within that political village, the conventional view of Brown versus Blair--Gordon the traditional socialist, Tony the centrist modernizer--is simplistic. Untainted by the war, Brown may indeed shield Labour from rising anti-Blair sentiment and the loss of public trust. But as a Blair government morphs into a Brown government, how will policies change--and when? "We're entering some very choppy waters," says a government minister.

Timing is one issue. Last autumn, even as he renounced a fourth term, Blair vowed to serve "a full third term." But in a parliamentary system where party chiefs lead their troops into election battles, Blair's scenario would seem unworkable. From May 6 onward, the Brown camp will be "pressing for an early succession--full stop," says one Brown ally. A second issue concerns leadership. Whatever Blair's faults, Labour has won two consecutive elections under him and is headed for a third win in two weeks. Will the "Middle England" voters who warmed to Blair stay with Brown in the next election?

Tensions between them are certain to come out. Brown, representing the future, will struggle to exert influence over Blair, who, however uncomfortably, will represent the past. It's impossible to know just how this will shape the next government, but it could get messy. …