On the day before he becomes leader of his party, what more could Brown possibly want than to have virtually all the papers pushing a "Strong Brown saves Britain from weak Blair and the French" line? After a couple of days of headlines where Brown - some might say successfully - created the perception of reaching out beyond tribal party politics, we now have a brilliantly timed moment of Brown's "strength" at the EU Summit which he wasn't even attending. But how did it happen?
If you look at the path the British position at the EU Summit has taken over the past 48 hours it seems rather an odd one when placed against what we know about Blair. Initially the French protectionist move was dismissed; then we were seeking "clarity" of their position; next we were saying "you know what, it's actually not that bad really"; and then suddenly we're back to square one after a phone call where Brown is alleged to have "ordered" Blair to tell the French to stick it.
Thus we have "Brown forces Blair to stand up and veto a French stitch-up" (Mail), "Brown acts to avert Blair ‘cave-in’" (The Times), "EU agrees mini-treaty as Brown calls on Blair to stiffen his resolve" (Indy), "Go back and stand up to the French, Brown orders Blair" (Guardian), "Blair's EU 'cave-in' ends truce with Brown" (Telegraph), "Brown vetoes Blair and France" (Sun).
Call me a feral cynic if you will, but what if the British concession was never actually serious? Put it like this, if one accepts that Blair was genuinely about to concede to Sarkozy (and Brown wasn't) then one is also accepting that Blair is on the Left of Brown when it comes to economics and the markets. That is after all the implication behind the headlines. Brown as the anti-protectionist free-marketeer against the protectionist left winger Blair.
Say what you like about Blair and his ten years in Government, but it simple isn't credible that Brown is on the Right of him. So how could such a situation as today's chorus of headlines actually come about? I'd say there are two possible explanations. The first (unlikely) explanation is that the whole thing was part of a news management operation from start to finish. That Blair and Brown were complicit in creating a "Brown stands up to the EU" line the day before he took over.
The second (and more likely) explanation is that the rivalry between the two men is so bitter that Blair decided he would try and stitch Brown up by agreeing to something that he knew Brown wouldn't accept. This would mean Brown, upon taking the reigns of power, would have to go back to the table and renegotiate, finding himself embroiled in a mess not of his making.
As an aside here it's interesting that in the Daily Mail, a newspaper edited by Gordon Brown's close friend, Paul Dacre, that the phrase "stitch-up" is actually used, albeit in relation to the French rather than Blair. It's also worth noting that when the news broke about Britain accepting the French position the words "cave-in" began to appear in media. They were always in quotes, yet always unattributed. Someone somewhere was briefing that line.
Next up is the "phone call". When you look at the papers what you see - consistently - is the line that a phone call was made by Brown to Blair which involved Brown "ordering" Blair about what he must do. Now, clearly that view of reality is not something that will have come from anyone in the Blair camp. Can anyone seriously imagine Blair's spokesman briefing the press that his boss took orders from his inferior? Exactly.
I'd say it's far more likely that the conversation involved Brown telling Blair that his attempt to stitch him up had misfired and left him with two choices. He could either (a) carry on safe in the knowledge that Brown would ensure the phrase "cave-in" was everywhere and that he would make sure Blair was remembered as the man that threw Britain away; or (b) he could U-Turn and be briefly humiliated by Brown but ultimately save himself from looking a complete tit as a result of his final act as PM.
Putting it simply, it was a win-win situation for Brown. In the first instance he knew the press, being largely euro-sceptic, would pump the "Blair cave-in" line for all that it was worth. And in the second he knew he could push the "Strong Brown" line if Blair was willing to capitulate. Of course, this is all wild speculation on my part, but the lines across the media in the past 48 hours seemed amazingly syncronised that all I could think about was "continuity and change".