PM should hand over reins now

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Why are we waiting, oh why are we waiting? It’s a good question for both Gordon Brown and the nation, says political editor Chris Fisher, as we enter an unprecedented six-week period with both a prime minister and his chosen successor.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Gordon Brown has done it. After waiting for so many years, he has won the jobs of Labour leader and prime minister. As the sole nominee for the former he is assured not only of that but also the keys to No 10. But even now his waiting isn't over.

He will not officially become his party's leader until June 24, at a special Labour conference in Manchester. And, as things stand, he will not be appointed PM until June 27, following Tony Blair's resignation earlier that day.

I say 'as things stand', because this hiatus is not only unprecedented. It is bizarre, and it invites ridicule. For about five weeks Britain will have a sort of 'two Popes' scenario. Who will actually be the real prime minister in that time - Mr Blair or Mr Brown?

This situation is unnecessary as well as silly. It should therefore be changed, and in theory that could be quite easily done. There is no constitutional or party political need for Mr Blair to hang about until late-June. He could step down today, and let Mr Brown officially take over before the weekend.

He doesn't want to do that because, not content with the big breakthrough in Northern Ireland, he wants to go out with one or two more bangs. He is intent on attending two international summits next month: the G8 one in Germany on June 6-8, when he hopes to put his name to a new agreement on combating climate change; and an EU one in Brussels on June 21-22, when an attempt will be made to secure a deal on reviving a European constitution.

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But his successor and his party are not obliged to indulge him in this. Either on his own, or as the leader of a little delegation, Mr Brown could go to the prime minister and ask/tell him to get out of the way.

It is astonishing and rather damning that Labour did not properly foresee the danger of a non-contest for the leadership and prepare a Plan B by which Mr Blair would step down as soon as it was officially declared that there was no challenger to Mr Brown.

I wrote a week ago about the possibility that the chancellor would be the sole candidate but would nonetheless be left waiting several weeks to pick up his prize, and I am not claiming any significant degree of prescience. Once David Miliband, John Reid and Charles Clarke had ruled themselves out, it was clear that the 'leadership election' could prove a non-event. It was always hard to take a John McDonnell/Michael Meacher challenge seriously, and a dismissive attitude to it has proved justified.

One reason that has been given for sticking to the leadership timetable is that there is definitely a contest for Labour's deputy leadership, and the winner of it will not be declared until June 24. But so what? Why should it get in the way of a quick transfer from Mr Blair to Mr Brown inside No 10?

The new PM is under no obligation to give the job or title of deputy PM to the person who becomes Labour's deputy leader. John Prescott has been reminding people of that in recent days, and it is a reasonable inference that he has been doing it at the suggestion of Mr Brown.

A theory doing the rounds at Westminster is that Mr Brown intends to make Jack Straw deputy PM, and he is not standing for Labour's deputy leadership. This story might prove to be wrong. It is possible Mr Brown won't make any of his colleagues deputy PM. Even if he does want to give someone that role, however, and he feels it must go to Labour's new deputy leader, that would be no reason to stop him getting into No 10 and appointing a cabinet quickly.

All the signs are that the deputy leadership will be won by Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn or Harriet Harman. It also appears that Mr Brown is planning to put all of them in his first cabinet. So why not give them the portfolios he wants them to have, and then provide one of them with the extra title of deputy PM after June 24?

Mr Brown can now fully prepare his cabinet and government teams, and work out in detail the policy initiatives he intends to launch in his first weeks in No 10. But over the next few weeks there is likely to be much awkwardness, some acrimony and deepening paralysis at the top of the government machine. David Cameron's recent gibe that Britain has a "government of the living dead" may ring louder and louder in the nation's ears.

Trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling is a close ally of Mr Brown. He is strongly tipped to be the next chancellor of the exchequer. And it may well be that he was revealing something of Mr Brown's own thinking when he told the BBC yesterday that his own preference would be for an immediate transfer of power. "Personally I'm all in favour of the ancient British tradition - the prime minister is there one day, he announces he's going and a new prime minister takes over", he said.

A particular concern for Mr Brown and his party may be that at the EU summit Mr Blair will sign up to a watered-down consti-tution that they - not least because of referendum implications - do not want.

Could the outgoing PM actually do that? Concern that he might was shown in yesterday's comment from Labour backbencher Andrew Mackinlay that "it's not in the interests of the UK that somebody who is retiring should commit the country".

He issued a reminder that Winston Churchill had taken Clement Attlee with him to the Potsdam conference, and suggested that Mr Brown accompany Mr Blair to the G8 and EU gatherings. Could the incoming PM actually insist on it if he wanted to?

Yarmouth's Tony Wright was one of the last of the 313 Labour MPs who nominated Mr Brown for the party leadership. He did so between 6pm on Wednesday when the chancellor had 307 nominations and yesterday's 12.30pm deadline.

Charles Clarke did not nominate anyone for the leadership or deputy leadership. Asked by the EDP to explain his thinking, he said: "I have nothing to say to you about this."