Magazine article The Spectator

Why Surly Gordon Brown Behaved Better about a Referendum Than Affable Kenneth Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Surly Gordon Brown Behaved Better about a Referendum Than Affable Kenneth Clarke

Article excerpt

Kenneth Clarke and his Labour shadow Gordon Brown have much in common. They are hard, unyielding men who do not simply relish unpopularity. They court it. They both feel that something is seriously amiss if they are not at war with their closest colleagues.

But there is one critical difference. Brown eats his humble pie like a man. Clarke does not. Last Sunday, after fighting a long and lonely battle against any Labour commitment to a referendum on the single currency, the shadow Chancellor hauled up the white flag. In the normal course of events this would have been hailed as a humiliating political defeat at the hands of bitter shadow Cabinet enemies. And that is indeed a plausible summary of what really occurred. But Brown, who is not normally a model of political decorum, affected not to notice and carried off the retreat in splendid style.

Crucially, he announced the U-turn himself, and in his own way. Furthermore, he gave out that it had been his own decision. The Brown mind, it was intimated, had not altered one whit. Circumstances alone had changed. Mr Brown claimed that after a series of grand visits to the Chancelleries of Europe, it had become dangerously behind schedule. It was, therefore, appropriate to put the single currency to the British people in a referendum rather than include it in Labour's election manifesto.

Mr Brown's version of events is, at the very least, a partial account of the truth. Labour sources tell a resoundingly different story. Until two weeks ago he was adamantly opposed to a referendum. Indeed he signalled as much, in the strongest terms, in a Today programme interview. But this interview immediately alarmed shadow Cabinet colleagues and Tony Blair's private office. Mr Blair, unlike Mr Brown, has been convinced for months that Labour had no choice but to exercise the referendum option. To hear the shadow Chancellor expressing such heartfelt opposition to the move was unwelcome and dangerous. It was the signal for a long series of tense negotiations in which Mr Blair gradually prevailed on Mr Brown to change his mind.

And in its way, persuading his proud shadow Chancellor to come round to a referendum was one of the most skilful things that Mr Blair has ever done. The full shadow Cabinet was never consulted, though John Prescott and Robin Cook were brought in at a later stage. The final decision was made well before Mr Blair travelled to Paris to meet President Jacques Chirac last week. That would have been a natural moment to unveil the change. But questioned about Labour's position on a single currency, Mr Blair did nothing to indicate that a change was afoot. He was determined that the announcement should not come from his mouth, but the mouth of his shadow Chancellor. It duly did. And when it came, Mr Brown's account of events was expressed with such false clarity, conviction and style that nobody has sought to question it.

It is instructive to compare Mr Brown's exemplary performance with Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's graceless road to defeat at the hands of John Major on the identical issue of the referendum six months ago. Like Mr Brown, the Chancellor is a proud man. Like Mr Brown, he is very fond of getting his own way. Like Mr Brown, he had the strongest private views on the subject. But unlike Mr Brown he fought like a ferret in a sack against his closest colleagues to delay the inevitable. …

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