The Magazine

Exit Blair...

Enter Gordon Brown.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By GERARD BAKER
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It takes skill to turn one of the most predictable and anticipated events in political history into a virtual showstopper. It takes something approaching political genius to pull off that feat when you are almost universally regarded as dour, unexciting, and having all the charisma of a mildewed raincoat.

But that is essentially what Gordon Brown managed to do last week as he assumed at last the mantle of leader of the British Labour party and prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Brown has been the next prime minister for more than a decade. He was already the heir apparent to Tony Blair when Labour swept to power in 1997. But like an ambitious dauphin whose monarch refuses to die, Brown was forced to wait and wait and anxiously and impatiently wait. And the longer he waited, the less appealing he seemed. Brown is a kind of British version of Hillary Clinton--the experienced, intellectually gifted frontrunner who has vanquished all challengers by creating an aura of inevitability about his succession, but who manages to engender no real affection or enthusiasm among the voters.

When Brown finally effected a clumsy coup last September that forced Blair to announce he would quit within the year, it only added to the sense that his was going to be a Pyrrhic, and shortlived, victory. The Conservative party, moribund for the last 10 years after dominating British politics for the previous 20, has been showing real signs of life in the last year under its new charismatic, if slightly vacuous, leader David Cameron, who could not disguise the relish with which he looked forward to the contest with Brown.

But in the course of a frantic few days last week, Brown managed to sprinkle a little pixie dust onto his lugubrious and largely uncelebrated accession. First, a few days before the handover, he orchestrated a bizarre piece of political theater, letting it be known that he had invited Lord Paddy Ashdown of the third-party Liberal Democrats (known to non-British readers as an energetic peace envoy in the Balkans and elsewhere) to join his cabinet. Given that Labour has a large enough majority in the House of Commons on its own, this was a purely political move. As well as wrongfooting the Liberal Democrats, who have the capacity to inflict real damage on Labour in the next election, the move had the startling effect of making Brown look magnanimous, reaching out to political opponents, willing to work in a bipartisan way on the nation's future.

Since the new prime minister has long had a reputation, even among his admirers, as a control freak--reluctant to share power with anyone inside his own party, let alone outside it--this was quite a change. And even though the Liberal Democrats noisily declined the offer, the image of a different, more collegial Brown lingered, improbably, in the haze.

Then, the day before he was due to take office, Brown engineered one of those pieces of pure Westminster political theater in which a hitherto utterly unknown member of parliament suddenly becomes a cause célèbre and the object of equal amounts of adulation and loathing. We are talking, of course, about a good old-fashioned political defection of a backbencher from one party to the other--in this case, Quentin Davies, an obscure Conservative MP who crossed the floor to join Labour.

This too made Brown look inclusive and statesmanlike, and his seething Tory opponents look bickering and factionalized. So much for Cameron's flair and élan; he had been taught a lesson in political pyrotechnics by his colorless opponent.

Then the new prime minister, the second most familiar figure in British politics, co-genitor of the Blair-Brown New Labour revolution these last ten years, suddenly cast himself as the agent of change. In his inaugural remarks on the threshold of No. 10 Downing Street last week, Brown used the word "change" eight times in a two-minute speech.

So the transition has gone quite well for Brown. But can he possibly keep it up? In fact, the Brown accession--as smoothly as it has gone so far--is a long way short of completion.

What the new prime minister is attempting to pull off is one of the most familiar but rarely successfully executed maneuvers in democratic politics, and one that could have big lessons for this country's Republican party.

Like the Conservative John Major, who replaced Margaret Thatcher, like Nicolas Sarkozy, the French conservative who replaced Jacques Chirac as French president this May, Brown is trying to demonstrate that the public's hunger for change can be met without ditching the governing party, but merely by changing its leader. If Brown can persuade the public that change in the leadership of the ruling party is sufficient change, then he could yet achieve a famous victory at a general election in a year or two. (For Republicans, the lesson might just be the same.)