Magazine article The Spectator

Fix Your Departure Date Now, Gordon, and Give Your Legacy a Chance

Magazine article The Spectator

Fix Your Departure Date Now, Gordon, and Give Your Legacy a Chance

Article excerpt

It is time for Gordon Brown to start contemplating leaving Downing Street. But he should only set a date well into the next decade. To get there he needs to consider now how he wants to be remembered. If he does not initiate discussions on his own legacy, he will suffer the fate of one of his two most recent predecessors, namely to be forced out prematurely or humiliated at the polls.

The idea of Mr Brown focusing on what he has achieved in Downing Street after less than 12 months in residence could be dismissed as another sign of the government's lack of a political compass. Yet in planning his political exit so far in advance, Mr Brown will be seeding his revival and a return in his party's fortunes prior to him going to the country in 2010.

To rebuild, Gordon Brown needs to recognise two incontrovertible facts: as a political 'brand' he is reaching the end of his shelf life; were he to win the next general election it is inconceivable that he would lead Labour into the following one. His goals are simple: extend his shelf life and prepare the ground for handing over to a younger leader after winning the next election. His means to do this are straightforward: show how the country can make good use of his experience and outline what he'll help his team achieve.

Which is why talk of a legacy by Mr Brown's few remaining friends in the media is not as potty as it seems (though it should bring a wry smile to Tony Blair given the scorn poured on his own attempts to cement his achievements). Mr Blair's plans were settled at a meeting in Chequers in April 2006 where he agreed to 'campaign himself out of office'. The blueprint which Mr Blair approved at this meeting, and which still sits in a box file in the Cabinet Office, provides the basis for Mr Brown's recovery. Moreover, with time on his side, and no obvious candidate looking to force him from office (unlike Mr Blair), Mr Brown has the opportunity to succeed where Mr Blair failed. But more of that later.

Mr Brown should ask the Cabinet Secretary to retrieve the notes which were prepared for the Chequers discussion. I was lucky enough to be part of the team which presented this document to Mr Blair. At first he viewed these plans as a monarch no doubt regards discussing their own funeral arrangements. But when a politician recognises their own mortality they can approach issues with genuine zeal (as Bill Clinton did once the Starr Report was behind him).

If Mr Brown were to read the papers, he would see separate plans to cover policy, communications and politics. The policy section trotted through the usual themes of the late Blair period (City Academies, NHS reform, tackling climate change) while also covering hardy New Labour perennials (rebalancing the criminal justice system, a progressive foreign policy and building a strong economy). The communications plan urged Mr Blair to be more open about what he wanted to achieve in office and created riskier platforms to help him do this. The political advice called for a bold reshuffle in May 2006, perhaps offering the final chance of a challenger to Mr Brown to emerge (here the advice fell on deaf ears, with Margaret Beckett rather than David Miliband going to the Foreign Office).

While the word 'legacy' did not feature in the document, and the term was in fact loathed by Mr Blair, the strategy was designed to demonstrate one. For Mr Brown to set about achieving his own, he needs a similar plan. …

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