Ever since Tony Blair let slip in September 2004 that he had plans to step down, two questions have loomed large in Britain. When will he go, and what will his successor do differently?
Now that the answer to the first question is more or less settled – Mr. Blair is expected to move on by midsummer – the focus is turning to the second.
Barring an improbable political upset, that man will be Gordon Brown, an earnest Scot with a rigorous intellect and a passion for social justice who has served – not always comfortably – for 10 years as Blair's finance minister and right-hand man.
Members of Parliament, political analysts, and people who know Mr. Brown say he will be a much different prime minister from Blair. His interests are Africa and trade justice rather than the Middle East; he was never enthusiastic about Iraq; he appears to have little in common with President Bush.
But although Brown is sometimes seen as the embodiment of core Labour values, the caricature of him as a closet socialist suspicious of America and skeptical about war is off the mark.
"Gordon is very much an Americaphile, in some ways more than Blair," says Stephen Twigg, a former government minister who is now director of the Foreign Policy Center think tank in London. "When he goes on holiday abroad ,he tends to go to Cape Cod, while Blair normally holidays in Europe. Culturally, Gordon is very much an Atlanticist with strong connections to US politics."
Brown is not yet home free. Some in his Labour Party mutter that his diffident ways and clear association with 10 years of Blairism may make it difficult for him to appeal to voters. But so far, there is no sign of another Labour candidate coming forward to challenge him for the role of party leader that Blair will vacate. If no one does, Brown will accede unchallenged to the Labour helm, and as a result will take over as prime minister as well.
Americans may find him a very different proposition from Blair, more cautious, possibly less compliant. Some say the White House should prepare for a big change in style, if not substance. "There'll be a huge difference because Brown is not an actor like Blair," says Tom Bower, a journalist and author who wrote a 2004 biography of Brown. "But he is an Atlanticist and won't break the relationship with Washington."
What he might do, however, is accentuate the differences between London and Washington. Blair was always apt to minimize whatever disputes arose and stress the unity of the two allies, which often made him look obsequious and earned him the unflattering sobriquet "Bush's poodle."
But diplomats have criticized him for failing to extract enough influence for his unswerving support for Bush's wars. Brown may play a tougher game.
"In those areas where there is disagreement, as there has been on climate change [and] the International Criminal Court, Tony Blair has tended to underplay those, whereas Gordon Brown might be more overt," predicts Mr. Twigg. "He will quite deliberately give emphasis to areas where there are disagreements."
"He'll be much tougher on America than Blair was," predicts Ian Gibson, a Labour parliamentarian, who, like Brown, charted a course from provincial Scotland through Edinburgh University and on to national politics. "But he has a great interest in some of the good things in America," he adds, noting that Brown is more at ease among intellectuals than among defense and institutional types in Washington. "He's more pro-America than pro-Europe in fact."
Indeed, Europeans may be dreading the prospect of a Brown premiership. While Blair aimed to haul Britain into the heart of Europe, the chancellor has given few signs of being a Europhile over the past 10 years and, apart from brief appearances at meetings, rarely visits the continent.
On Iraq, few expect a sudden change. Blair has already started the countdown to exit with the announcement on Feb. 21 of a drawdown in troops. Brown will, experts say, want to draw a line in the sand. And he may change the tune about the war, because he was far less convinced than Blair about it.
"He doesn't suggest, like Blair does, that the war in Iraq was part of the fight against terrorism," says John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University in Scotland. "He has said as little as possible on Iraq, but has said enough to suggest that he won't give speeches implying that the war in Iraq contributed to reducing terrorism in the UK."
Mr. Curtice says Brown's main aim would be to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. "The other question is will he be willing to say we made a mistake?" he adds.
Afghanistan is a different matter. Here Brown looks to be locked into current policy. The defense ministry has just announced another rise in troop numbers, to 7,700, and the campaign in the south is viewed very differently from Iraq. "Here, he can't avoid a commitment," warns Professor George Joffe, a Middle East expert at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University. "But he will do so at the expense of Iraq."
While Blair's foreign policy has centered around active interventionism – the idea that the West has a moral duty to intervene militarily where it sees gross injustice – Brown's big ideas are different, though equally predicated on morality. "He clearly has a passion about Africa; issues around aid, debt relief, and trade justice," notes Twigg. But whether he backs away from moral interventionism remains to be seen. "The situation in Darfur will provide a major test" of that.
Brown has already started behaving like a prime minister. In speeches now, he strays well off the financial beat, positing ideas and policies on everything from Britishness and immigration to Britain's chances of hosting the 2018 soccer World Cup.
Allies say he will focus more on higher education, science, technology, and engineering. The need to stiffen economic competition against developing countries like India is a favored theme.
But some fret that a Brown premiership does not promise enough domestic change to revive a party suffering in the polls. Brown was, after all, the architect of many of Labour's reforms over the past decade.
As Frank Field, a former minister, wrote last week: "What new directions can be offered when the architect of current policies has merely moved up one place?"