Steve Richards had an interesting opinion piece in The Independent yesterday where he asserted that Gordon Brown is now less powerful than when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Here's an excerpt:
As a mighty Chancellor, Brown had a big say in who got what job and who did not. If he disapproved of a ministerial appointment he made sure that his or her space for manoeuvre was limited. When Blair elevated the likes of Mandelson and Alan Milburn in cabinet reshuffles Brown despaired. As one of his close allies told me, "Tony's reshuffles were highly charged affairs as far as Gordon was concerned". In particular he needed to lie down in a darkened room when Blair promoted Mandelson to be President of the Board of Trade in 1998. Even so, once Brown had recovered from the shock he was so powerful as Chancellor he made sure Mandelson had no space to put the case for the euro or to say very much on the economy.With an almost comical symmetry, as Prime Minister he was so weak he buttressed his precarious perch by giving Mandelson a more wide-ranging and powerful portfolio than Blair would ever have dared to offer his friend. During an earlier crisis Brown also discussed with Milburn the possibility of a return. Since becoming Prime Minister his powers are so diminished that his enemies have flourished more than they did when he was Chancellor. In contrast, even before last Wednesday Brown was not powerful enough to make Ed Balls Chancellor, although he is the figure whose judgement he rates above all others.As Prime Minister he finally acquired formal powers of patronage. Yet he was able to hand out more jobs to his allies when he was Chancellor and he had no formal powers at all.
The whole piece is certainly worth a read and he touches upon other aspects as he makes his case.
I agree that Brown is now a less powerful and diminished figure compared to what he was 5 or 10 years ago. However the tenor of Steve's piece almost seems to be that Brown should rue ever having become Prime Minister which I very much doubt he does.
I think what Steve is overlooking is that the reason why Brown is so much less powerful than Tony Blair was as PM is because the Labour Party itself is now so much weaker as it slides towards what seems like inexorable defeat.
It is true that ministers including Alistair Darling now appear to be able to strut around and make comments that are at variance with what Brown says and there is not really anything that Brown can do. But that is largely because Darling et al know that their party is going to be out of office in a few months time. If they thought they had a good chance of still being in after the general election (or like in 2005 and 2001 a near certainty) then things would be very different and the patronage Brown has at his fingertips would be much more potent. They would toe his line for fear that he could sack them. That's how it normally works and what has broken down in recent times.
So I suppose I am saying that although Brown is less powerful than he used to be, he would be even less powerful still had he remained Chancellor and Labour were shuffling towards a defeat. It's all relative.
I do agree with Steve's final comment though:
He (Brown) will never enjoy the immense power he wielded at the Treasury when he yearned, every minute of each day, to make the move to No 10.
It probably never occurred to him at the time that he was at the pinnacle of his powers at that point but looking back it is almost certainly true (perhaps we could include the first 4 months of his premiership too until "the election that never was").
Maybe he should have spent more time enjoying it rather than scheming to get his next door neighbour's job....