Johnson and Sunak must learn from Blair-Brown feud – Andrew Vine

I’VE been gripped by the must-see series about the fractious relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the fourth episode of which was shown last night.

The dynamics of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak's relationship will come under scrutiny in Budget 2021.
The dynamics of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak's relationship will come under scrutiny in Budget 2021.

Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, on BBC Two, is compelling viewing for its story of a decade in which politics was determined by the deterioration of a friendship and political partnership between the two men.

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The body language of both speaks as much about the strains of the relationship as their carefully chosen words. Mr Blair has a restless, haunted air about him and Mr Brown appears stubborn and self-righteous.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's turbulent relationship is now the subject of a BBC documentary.

Only they know the depth of distrust – perhaps even loathing – that exists between them, but it is obvious theirs is a relationship that soured spectacularly from its beginnings as an exceptionally close bond.

The rift is emphasised by the archive footage of them on the brink of power and in the early days of government, when their mutual trust and unity of purpose were there for all to see.

And that casts a very intriguing perspective in a Budget week when the relationship between their successors as Prime Minister and Chancellor is central to how the country recovers from the economic damage inflicted by Covid.

The parallels between the Blair-Brown era and today are striking – Number 10 is occupied by a popular Prime Minister with an unassailable majority who is an exceptional communicator and attracts the support of those who would not normally vote for his party.

Next door, his Chancellor exudes competence and has the air of a man who can be trusted, a model of good sense and understanding of the issues that really matter to people’s lives.

Only Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak know how close their political relationship is, but I do wonder if both have watched the Blair-Brown series and recognise how the day-to-day realities of governing – and personal ambition – can cause damaging divisions.

Amongst the round of interviews Mr Sunak did at the weekend in advance of tomorrow’s Budget was one in which he acknowledged that he and the Prime Minister don’t always see eye to eye, which came on top of reported tensions between them in recent weeks over spending.

But, he added, they have a good personal relationship and talk disagreements through amicably. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? During the Blair and Brown years, that was more or less what both men’s camps said every time another report of furious arguments emerged.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's turbulent relationship is now the subject of a BBC documentary.

And there is certainly potential for tension between Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak. The Prime Minister wants to spend big, which leaves the Chancellor with the headache of how to pay for the pledges, not least the core objective of levelling up the economy.

Giving the North the investment it needs if that is to be achieved won’t come cheap. On transport alone, Northern Powerhouse Rail has a price tag of £39bn – in addition to HS2.

Then there is the NHS to fund as it struggles with what promises to be a difficult winter ahead, as well as trying to tackle growing waiting lists and fund social care reform.

And overshadowing everything is the cost of paying back the massive Government borrowing to get the country through the pandemic and preserve jobs. Mr Johnson’s outlook is famously that he likes to have his cake and eat it. The problem with that is it leaves Mr Sunak with the bill for the cake.

Conflicts between prime ministers and chancellors are one of the constants of governments. Whether it was Margaret Thatcher falling out with Nigel Lawson or Theresa May coming to distrust Philip Hammond, relations between the neighbours in Downing Street usually become prickly.

The only recent partnership that seemed entirely harmonious was that between David Cameron and George Osborne, but it didn’t sit well with the country having two vastly wealthy men from privileged backgrounds telling voters that they must endure years of austerity.

Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak aren’t 
doing that, but they are warning of tax rises and higher bills for food and heating ahead.

That isn’t a recipe for a Government’s popularity to remain buoyant, or for a Chancellor to retain his equanimity whilst trying to find the money to pay for his next door neighbour’s extravagant spending pledges which are key to his personal approval ratings.

Nobody would for a moment suggest that relations between the current occupants of numbers 10 and 11 are anything like as bad as they became between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But there is a warning from history in that compelling documentary series of how quickly, and terminally, political neighbours can fall out over spending.

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