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Gordon Brown Set to Lead Britain

Britain's Finance Minister Gordon Brown is set to take over as prime minister when Tony Blair leaves office on June 27.

Fifty-six year-old Gordon Brown has been Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, for a decade - - as long as Tony Blair has been prime minister. Jerry DeGroot, history professor at St. Andrew's University, says Brown has done a great job in managing the British economy.

"He has probably been the most successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in British history, especially because of the fact that he is a Labor chancellor and Labor chancellors aren't supposed to be so good at managing the economy. And he is also one of the longest serving chancellors," says DeGroot. "He seemed throughout this period to have a sort of golden touch, but also, I think, reveled in being able to sort of carry out his business in the background, out of the limelight. He is a very extremely intelligent man, but not someone that people know very much about."

In talking to experts about Gordon Brown, one word keeps recurring to describe him -- "enigma."

Tensions at the Top

John Rentoul is one of Tony Blair's biographers. "The extraordinary thing about Gordon Brown is that he's very well-known to the British people because he's been the second most important figure in the government over the past ten years," says Rentoul. "And yet he remains something of an enigma, because as is often said by his enemies, when the going gets tough for the prime minister, Gordon Brown is nowhere to be seen and he quite often just doesn't appear on television. He hasn't been known for coming forward to support Tony Blair when things get difficult. And so his views remain obscure on a wide range of issues."

Rentoul says it is no secret that Mr. Brown and Mr. Blair have had a very rocky relationship, despite the fact that they've worked closely together in government for ten years -- and many more years before that when the Labor Party was in opposition.

"There is no such thing as friendship at the top, as [former British Prime Minister] Lloyd George once said. And their relationship has been fantastically tense, but also fantastically creative. They have managed to keep their differences out of the public view," says Rentoul. "Everybody knows that they don't get on and that they are rivals and that Gordon has been extremely impatient to take over for this whole time. But it's very difficult to point to specific instances where they've disagreed in public. And so the relationship has just about held together."

British historian Andrew Roberts says the bad blood between the two men dates back to May 1994 following the death of then Labor Party leader John Smith, "when Mr. Blair persuaded Mr. Brown not to stand against him for the leadership of the Labor Party. And so the leadership, and subsequently the premiership, went to Mr. Blair," says Roberts.

"And the feeling was that there was some kind of deal done between these two men at a dinner where the two of them were present, just the two of them -- in a restaurant in Islington, in north London. The restaurant was called 'Granita' -- it's called the 'Granita deal', the 'Granita agreement.' And the feeling is that Mr. Brown was angry that Mr. Blair broke the 'Granita agreement,'" says Roberts. "The only drawback, of course, is that neither of these men is willing to talk about it and we don't know what the agreement was. But it seems to have been that Mr. Blair was going to hand over to Mr. Brown, giving Mr. Brown enough time to enjoy the premiership himself."

Roberts says another source of friction between the two men is that Brown never expected to wait ten years to take up residence at 10 Downing Street. "He's really waited quite a long time and Mr. Brown is very irritated, I think, is the nicest word. There are all sorts of other words one could use -- that he's had to wait quite so long to be prime minister."

Continuity or Innovation?

But after a ten-year wait, Brown finally takes over as British prime minister on June 27. And once again, the word "enigma" comes up. Anthony King who teaches British politics at Essex University says, "The curious thing is that people don't have really any clear conception of what kind of prime minister he'll be. They are not clear about what his style as prime minister will be, how will he resemble or differ from Tony Blair," says King. "And until now, they've not been very clear either about what sort of lines of policy he would pursue. Would he be largely a prime minister of continuity or would he be a prime minister of innovation? And as we speak, nobody is quite sure. The jury has been out for a very long time and it's still out."

King says it will also be interesting to see how Brown approaches relations with the Bush administration in Washington. "One of the many mysteries surrounding Gordon Brown's premiership is easily stated. On the one hand, he has very close ties with America and Americans. He has a place on Cape Cod [Massachusetts] that he goes to often. He knows an awful lot of Americans. He takes the American 'intelligentsia' very seriously. He likes the U.S.," says King. "On the other hand, he knows perfectly well that the close ties between Tony Blair and the Bush administration in particular, have done Blair a great deal of harm [with the British public]."

King and others believe Brown will have to distance himself from current American foreign policy while keeping intact the so-called "special relationship" between Washington and London.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.