Does the new UK prime minister herald a new dawn in UK foreign policy or business as usual?Introduction
Second only to a General Election, this week marks the biggest political change in the UK in the past decade. After a decade waiting in the wings, Gordon Brown formally became Labour leader on June 24 and Prime Minister today. He secured the Labour leadership unopposed (by gaining the support of 308 Labour MPs, and because key challengers failed to get the 45 MP nominations required to force a leadership contest). His legislative program will be announced in a Queen\’s Speech in November.
Character: Admirers describe him as intellectually awesome, physically impressive, morally impeccable and seriously committed. Born in Glasgow in February 1951, the son of a Presbyterian minister, he describes his parents as the “moral compass” in his life. He was academically rigorous and entered Edinburgh University at 16 to study history, emerging with a first-class degree and later a doctorate. He went on to lecture in Edinburgh and work as a journalist in Scottish television. He became MP for Dunfermline East in Fife in 1983 and served there until 2005, when he became MP for Kircaldy and Cowdenbeath (a new seat after boundary changes).
In his youth he suffered a detached retina playing rugby, which has left him partially blind in one eye. Gordon Brown is a family man with two young children. He wed the public relations executive Sarah Macaulay in Fife in 2000 after a four-year courtship. In January 2002, their 10-day-old daughter, Jennifer, died after being born two months prematurely. They later had two sons; the second, born in 2006, has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
His Treasury website biography gives the impression of a man totally committed to politics, with personal interests listed simply as “football, tennis and film”. The chancellor has written several books, most recently one entitled Courage, which examines several characters who have inspired him, including Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. He is the first prime minister since Clement Atlee, 60 years ago, not to drive a car.
Critics call him dour, and a “control freak” possessed of “Stalinist ruthlessness”. But as the longest-serving chancellor in modern British history, he is undeniably a political heavyweight. However, even after more than a decade of scrutiny, his nature remains enigmatic and his depths not fully fathomed: the “great puzzle” according to the New York Times. Sir John Major recently said that he did not really know Gordon Brown, adding: “I\’m not one of the six people who do.”
The Blair-Brown rivalry: Tony Blair also entered parliament in 1983 and shared an office with Gordon Brown. The pair became friends and rivals. When the Labour leader John Smith died unexpectedly in May 1994, many believed Brown was the most likely to succeed him, but Blair emerged from the sidelines. Some commentators have described Gordon Brown as a Shakespearean character; a brooding Hamlet, who has dithered in his rivalry with Blair.
Five key challenges facing the new PM
- Holding on to the Crown: In David Cameron, the Conservatives have finally found a leader who appears at ease with modern Britain, and have been rewarded until very recently with poll leads even on traditional Labour issues, such as health. But the new PM will fight back on two fronts: Cameron\’s assumed lack of substance and on Labour\’s record of high levels of public spending, especially on the NHS. However, the latter could come under pressure with tough limits on public spending predicted over the next few years. The next UK general election must be held on or before 3 June 2010. It is possible that it may be held in June 2009 to coincide with elections to the European Parliament or even as early as Spring 2008, if a confident Gordon Brown were to take a sustained lead in the opinion polls. (A Mori poll on June 24 gave him an 18-point lead over David Cameron on the question of who is best placed to be Prime Minister).
- The economy: The golden decade of growth with low inflation is nearing an end; interest rates are at a six-year high of 5.5%. The Comprehensive Spending Review is due to be published in October outlining government spending over the next 3-5 years. It is predicted to show a significant tightening of public spending, with real cuts in several departments, and slowed growth in others.
- Health: The Labour Government has presided over huge increases in health spending, which will reach