Interview with Tony Halpin

Tony Halpin, Moscow Bureau Chief of the London Times, spoke to RT about Gordon Brown’s first steps as British Prime Minister. 

Russia Today: Now what are the early challenges for the new leader when he takes over in Downing Street?

Tony Halpin: I think, principally, his challenge is to get British people to like him. They certainly respected him for the last decade when he was a formidable Chancellor but to be Prime Minister you have to be something more. People pin their hopes and aspirations for their own futures on you. And they know they aren’t familiar with other aspects of Mr Brown’s character. What they do know about him they don’t necessarily like. He’s got this rather churlish and taciturn character. Internationally, of course, he’s got to deal with questions like Iraq. Iraq is one that he just can’t get away from. He has to establish relations with other world leader who are used to dealing with Mr Blair, who know Mr Blair. And he’s got to carve his own personality on the world stage.    

RT: Blair was President George W. Bush's closest ally over Iraq. What do you think will dominate Brown's agenda?

T.H.: Well, I don’t see any great differences in U.S.-British relations. They always survive changes of leadership. It’s based on shared principles rather than on any particular personalities. Mr Brown has already made it clear that he would like to have a greater distance from Mr Bush than Mr Blair had. In some ways that's not sensible politics. Mr Bush leaves in 2008.  There will be a new president after that. Mr Brown has the intention of staying for a good number of years.  So he’s got to think of the future beyond 2008, the future beyond Bush. At the same time he isn’t going to turn around and walk away from policies like Iraq. He’s going to stick it out. He has no other choice. And British people don’t really like leaders who cut and run. So I don’t really see a great deal of changes on that front.  

RT: What kind of a politician will the world be dealing with in Mr Brown?

T.H.: Well, he has talked very much in recent months about a moral purpose to politics and in some ways that’s been a backhanded criticism of Tony Blair, who came into office promising an ethical foreign policy, and his career was ended in Iraq.  Mr Brown tried to differentiate himself from Tony Blair by saying “well, my politics, my vision has a moral purpose, which is to improve peoples’ lives”. He’s kept that all through his political career in many ways. He’s very concerned, for example, with Africa. He sees what’s going on in Africa as one of the greatest sort of moral blights of the modern world. So I think there will be a lot of attention paid to Africa, to debt relief, to development questions there. As I said, he can’t escape the question of Iraq. Relations with the European Union will be slightly tricky because he is not a great fan of the euro, and he isn’t particularly in love with the idea of a European superstate. So I think that might be slightly rockier than it was with Tony Blair. But with the United States he is going to wait and try to impress himself upon the American consciousness because they know Tony Blair very well , they very much like Tony Blair, but they don’t know Gordon Brown.     

RT: Relations between Britain and Russia have become somewhat strained.  Can we expect any changes in relations between Britain and Russia now?

T.H.: Again, Russia doesn’t know much about Gordon Brown and there isn’t much in Gordon Brown’s political history so far that tells much about his attitude towards Russia. I suspect that he also will be waiting to see what happens in 2008 and who Mr Putin’s successor would be. He needs to establish a long-term relations and he needs to establish a personal chemistry, if you like, with the leader in the Kremlin. And he’s got the difficulty of, in some ways, care-taking British relations with Russia until a new president comes along, and then to try to establish a more profound relationship based on shared interests in business. It would be nice if he came to Russia, it’s been a long time since a British leader came here. It would be nice to see him coming to Moscow and trying to establish a future foundation for British-Russian relations. But I think Mr Brown’s immediate concerns will be domestic. For the next 6-12 months it may well be a very domestic focus in Britain but beyond that Mr Brown will be keen to project the world image particularly if Mr Blair becomes a Middle East envoy.