Sunday, January 30, 2005
A good week in Brown's mission to save the world
Posted by David Smith at 02:59 PM
Category: David Smith's other articles

The economic love-in at Davos last week paid dividends for the chancellor. He tells David Smith his aid plan is gathering pace

It has all the hustle and bustle of a typical Gordon Brown day, albeit in unusual surroundings. A 5am Friday start in London for the flight to Zurich, a helicopter trip over the Swiss Alps and the chancellor is soon putting himself about, his officials struggling to keep up, among the movers and shakers at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Brown is known not to be a fan of this high-level talking shop — this is only his second visit in nearly eight years as chancellor. But he is determined to cram as much in as he can before going home.

In the meantime, he will have shared a platform with Bono and Bill Gates — spookily similar to Tony Blair’s the day before — as well as Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He will have gladhanded the British businessmen attending the forum, hosted a lunch for journalists, held three press conferences and shown the world that there is more to Britain’s most famous political double act than just the prime minister.

He is not, however, interested in reopening familiar wounds. After an unseemly struggle between 10 and 11 Downing Street, in which Brown was bumped off one high-profile Davos event by Blair, he does not rise to the bait. Nothing, he insisted, should be read into the fact that he and Blair are in Davos on different days but doing the same thing.

“This is a united approach by the government to get to as many people as possible,” he says. “We’re all working on this together.”

Since the publication of Brown’s Britain earlier this month, written with the collaboration of Brown and his aides and which alleged that the chancellor could never again trust the prime minister, he has drawn back. The great fear that he could be seen as the Michael Heseltine of new Labour, so anxious to depose the leader that the party turns against him, is now a constraint. All hell might — and probably will — break loose after the election, but until then the Blair-Brown question is off-limits.

Brown, in fact, has something to celebrate. Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, has given his backing to a British plan designed to channel an extra $50 billion (about £26 billion) to poor countries over the next 10 years through the issue of bonds backed by their future aid receipts.

The German backing, Brown says, is “a big breakthrough, a demonstration of what we can do as governments”. Part of the money will be used to fund vaccines and immunisation, which will save at least 5m lives by 2015. France is another backer of Brown’s scheme. America, so far, is not. He wants Blair to use his powers of persuasion on George W Bush.

The chancellor, who returned two weeks ago from Africa, is clearly impassioned by the cause of poverty on the continent.

“We’re making progress, but we’ve been waiting a long time,” he says. “What happens to the poorest citizen in the poorest country affects the richest citizen in the richest country.”

And helping the poor, he says, is in Britain’s interest. “If you think of the Marshall plan, America was a great beneficiary of that because it led to the expansion of world trade,” he says.

He also thinks he is going with the flow. The public response to the tsunami and the Make Poverty History campaign suggests British voters want action this year. So is the international agenda now his big focus? Next weekend in London, with Nelson Mandela in tow, he will attempt to persuade all the members of the Group of Seven to sign up to his aid and development plan.

He has been less visible on the domestic front than usual, notably in response to the Tories’ tax and spending plans, but insists Africa has not diverted him from challenges closer to home. “We’re not doing this at the expense of domestic politics,” he says.

He is working on his budget and dismisses the latest claim from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that such is the “black hole” in the public finances that he will have to raise taxes after the election. Instead, he says, he is focused on raising Britain’s game. “Can we build a shared sense of national purpose that will allow us to invest in education, science and trading relationships and build a stronger enterprise culture?” he asks.

An enterprise conference with Alan Greenspan, doyen of central bankers, as the guest of honour — Brown likes to surround himself with big names — will precede the G7 meeting. The challenge, he says, is for Britain to show it can succeed, and continue to create jobs, when faced with the newly emerging economic giants of China and India. The implication is that Britain can, but only under his guidance.

What about the change that this iron chancellor is said to have undergone since the birth of his son John, 15 months ago? One reason for his visit to Davos being a fleeting one was to spend time with the boy he clearly dotes upon. Had it really changed him? Will it soften an image that is still seen as too austere by many voters?

“Everybody who has children knows that every child is special,” he says. “Sometimes we don’t understand in our social and economic policies that every child should have a chance to develop their potential, should have the ability to have a good start in life. I am influenced by this. When you see so much suffering among children, and it is avoidable, you want to do something about it. Every child’s life that is lost, mostly avoidably, is a tragedy.”

Sitting in a tiny room off a noisy thoroughfare in the Davos conference centre, he is briefly wistful.

We are interrupted. It is Bono, here for his “bilateral” meeting with the chancellor. The politician in his dark-blue suit and pink tie and the rock star in leather flying jacket and wraparound sunglasses hug one another as enthusiastically as long-lost cousins.

The U2 lead singer, who last autumn likened Blair and Brown to John Lennon and Paul McCartney — at their best when working together — sees more of the prime minister and chancellor these days than the other members of his band. He is effusive in his praise.The debt breakthrough, he says, is down to the chancellor. “It is his baby,” he says.

A delighted Brown beams and almost blushes. He had hoped to bring up his son on Bono’s records, he says, but now it looked as though he would bring him up on his speeches. The real political power, he says, lies with rock stars.

That may be so. But Brown, to judge by his demeanour, still has his eyes on the more traditional type of political power. His nose may have been put out of joint by the return of Alan Milburn, and his unhappiness with Blair is never far below the surface but both issues go unsaid.

The effect, however, has been to make him even more determined to step up when Blair steps down later, or possibly sooner.

From The Sunday Times, January 30 2005