Magazine article The Spectator

How the Treasury Made Gordon Relax

Magazine article The Spectator

How the Treasury Made Gordon Relax

Article excerpt

STRANGE rumours about the Chancellor's attitude to the euro have been circulating in Westminster for about a month and a half. A few days ago they finally made their way into print. I have not written about them myself until now because the best sources have consistently, and in my view sincerely, insisted that they are not true. Nevertheless, now that the monkey is out of the box, it behoves us to examine what species of primate it may be. People have been saying - some of them Brownies, some of them Blairites, some of them journalists with connections to both camps that the Chancellor is beginning to cool on the euro. Which is not to say that he has become opposed to it in principle, rather that he has been moving towards a more cautious view on timing; so cautious, indeed, that he has come to regard joining the single currency as a project which may possibly fit better into Labour's third, rather than its second, term.

This is big stuff. Any political plan which looks that far into the distance is not really a plan at all, but a vague aspiration. Commitments to the principle of a single currency, like honest intentions to join when the perfect time arises, are not worth a straw once the timetable slips.

Hitherto, the `Brown cools on euro' story, such as it is, has lacked a convincing explanation. I'm not sure that there is one. But the best argument rests on the notion that the Chancellor has gone more `Treasury native' in his 27 months in office than is commonly realised. In the main this is an irrelevant charge, because Mr Brown, that son of the Manse, was born Treasury native. Though fluent in the language of radicalism, his soul is made of Sabbath Day observance, his mind formed by a hot-house education.

So the metamorphosis from Red Gordon to Puritan Chancellor has been much less traumatic than one might have thought. It has been less a question of him assimilating uncomfortable Treasury orthodoxies, and more a matter of the Sir Humphreys smoothing his rough edges, soothing his paranoia about process, and making him feel more comfortably part of the machine.

In the great Labour tradition Brown arrived at the Treasury wearing the belief on his sleeve that its permanent denizens were incompetent fools whose efforts to undermine and destroy him would be to no avail. He and his three political staff were going to run the economy, and they would brook no interference from any blasted civil servants.

But the real Brown is such a congenital Treasury man, that, two years on each side has completely co-opted the other. Officials cannot believe their luck that they are currently represented (for that is how they see it) by the most powerful Chancellor of the modern era. Added to which, he is instinctively Treasury orthodox from his tip to his toe. They dislike all public expenditure, particularly investment in capital projects and in entrepreneurship, and so does he; they abhor the financial independence of other government departments, Brown has succeeded in centralising expenditure decisions at the Treasury to an unprecedented extent. On the macro questions of monetary and fiscal prudence, Brown is at one with the Treasury tradition.

From Gordon's point of view, he has simply extended his team. He divides the world straightforwardly into two camps: acolytes and enemies. The Chancellor now sees the Treasury as a bustling hive of supporters, helping him wage constant war against the common foes of other ministers and other departments. …

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