He has freed himself from the pressures of high office. He has talked over urgent problems with all the world’s elder statesman, including God. He is tanned and rested and still in his prime. Now he can lie back and enjoy that exquisite feeling of schadenfruede that infuses abandoned lovers when those who discarded them want them back.
‘I said you’d miss me when I was gone,’ he might purr. ‘And while I don’t like to say “I told you so”, I did, actually, tell you so.’
Opinion polls show that if Tony Blair were still its leader, Labour would have a chance of winning the next general election. As it is, Labour is stuck with Gordon Brown, whose popularity has fallen faster than any Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain admitted that the march of the Whermacht through Europe raised a few questions about his policy of appeasing Hitler. The Labour Party knows what it has lost. Left-wingers whose hatred of their former leader was once the best reason they could find for getting out of bed in the morning mutter that ‘Brown is Blair without the charisma’. The Marxisant Labour peer Lord Desai delivered the same thought more elegantly when he said, ‘Gordon Brown was put on earth to remind people how good Tony Blair was.’
It wasn’t meant to work out like this. Less than a year ago, when Gordon Brown forced Blair out, the conventional political wisdom from liberal newspaper columnists and broadcasters, Labour MPs from all wings of the party and radical playwrights, satirists, bishops and actresses ran as
Tony Blair was a poll-driven, focus-group watching flibbertigibbet. A relieved electorate would find the worthy competence of Gordon Brown a reassuring contrast. Blair was a sell-out – Tory Tony, B:Liar – who had betrayed socialist values by adopting Thatcherite policies and sucking up to the rich. Brown was a good, old-fashioned Labour man who disdained funny money men and had the interests of the poorest at heart. Blair was a warmonger who went along with the evil Bush. Brown was a man of peace who would pull British troops out of Iraq. All in all, the public would happily swap a smooth talker who couldn’t govern honestly for a straight -talker who
Not everything about the clichéd picture of Blair was wrong. I helped paint it about five years ago with a book on New Labour, Pretty Straight Guys, and many of my criticisms still stand up well, even if I do say so myself. But I recognised a side of Blair that was unpopular to mention then, and has become more unpopular to discuss since: no politician who committed troops to the uncertain enterprise of overthrowing Saddam Hussein could be accused of living in permanent fear of focus groups.
I went to a north London dinner party in honour of Michael Foot at the time the war began. Guests from the liberal media were opining on the awfulness of Blair, as they are now opining on the awfulness of Brown, and
fully expected the old leader of the Left to agree with them. Instead he slammed the table and bellowed, ‘I’ll say this for young Tony at least he takes it on the chin, at least he’s not a coward.’
The trouble with Brown is that no one can say that about him. He has every right to be disgusted by the speed at which his former friends in politics and the media have turned on him. But the truth is that the Rory
Bremner caricature of Tony Blair always applied better to Gordon Brown, although Bremner never realised it.
Consider his career. He was the heir apparent, the most dangerous position in politics. Naturally, the leader is suspicious of an ambitious deputy. Equally naturally, other ministers want to destroy him because they
cannot reach the top without stepping over his body.
Yet Gordon Brown survived for more than a decade. He undermined Blair with a display of disloyalty without parallel in modern politics, while his thuggish sidekicks briefed against Cabinet rivals with brutal effectiveness. At times over the past decade, the media talked of Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and David Blunkett as future leaders of the Labour Party. They might as well have passed a death sentence. All are now out on the back benches nursing the knife wounds in their backs.
So successfully did Brown promote himself as our next leader that he wasn’t one candidate for the job or even the most likely candidate to get the job, but the only conceivable candidate for the job. The comparison with Tony Blair is not flattering. He beat all comers to lead his party and won three general lections. Brown became Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by acclaim, without a general election or a
Labour leadership contest.
You can say many things about a man who took charge of his country even though the only poll he had won was for the parliamentary seat of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath. But a stranger to the dark arts of spin he ain’t. You can say much about the craftiness of a politician who can persuade the editor of the Daily Mail that he is on his side and the editor of the Daily Mirror that he is on his side , but you can’t call him a straight talker.
Above all, cynics must admire his ability to pose as a break from New Labour to both Left and Right when New Labour was as much his creation as Tony Blair’s and Peter Mandelson’s.
I don’t want to be prissy. You have to be prepared to get your hands dirty to get to the top in politics and in many other occupations too. But the failure of Gordon Brown to win a mandate explains his wider failure as PM. Elections define men and women. They force them to say who they are and what they want. Brown has never had to face one, so across Britain people are asking themselves ‘who is this guy?’
At one level, the charge feels absurd. Brown was the most powerful chancellor since Lloyd George. Nearly every political decision that has impinged on your life was taken by him. When your money went in taxes, Brown decided who should get it. If the single mother in your street can afford to buy new clothes for her children, that is to his credit. If your local health trust has wasted so much money on computer systems that don’t work and vast pay rises for GPs it can’t treat you or those you love, then that is to his shame.
The charge may not make sense rationally but it does psychologically. If you spend your life manoeuvring behind the scenes seeming all things to all men, you risk becoming nothing to no one. And that is what Brown has become. Everyone on the left said a year ago. that he was a solid social democrat – the antidote to Tory Tony. Yet the one prejudice that used to define the centre-left was an abiding and in my view healthy suspicion of banks and financial markets. Sensible leftists didn’t want to abolish or nationalise them, or even impose penal taxes on City bonuses But they did want to regulate them. Seared into their souls were folk memories of stock market crashes and great depressions.
If they were once in Brown’s soul, he has expunged them. No one in the mainstream media has pointed out how incredible it is that the first run on a British bank since Disraeli’s day occurred on a Labour government’s watch. Caricature Tories were meant to let cigar-chomping plutocrats waste the savings of the common folk. But it wasn’t John Major or Margaret Thatcher who forced taxpayers to risk tens of billions of pounds bailing out the incompetent managers of Northern Rock and other equally overpaid mangers of other equally ill run banks, but a supposedly prudent son of the manse who was meant to have a solid Presbyterian wariness of flash men in sharp suits.
Social justice? Come off it, why is he raising taxes on the working poor? Iraq? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but our boys (and girls) are still there. But they are not fighting the blood-drenched theocrats of Muqtada al-Sadr but sitting in Basra airport, like passengers stranded in Terminal Five – neither in nor out; neither preparing for battle nor preparing to leave.
Our soldiers posting to limbo is the perfect symbol of the paralysis of Brown’s government. Tony Blair would never have let it take hold. Because he was used to fighting elections, he was also accustomed to going to the
Commons, the television studios and the electorate and fighting his corner, and winning it, more often than not. We hear much about the dark arts of politics, but the greatest skill a politician in a democracy needs to master is the art of seduction. Blair learned it in the crucible of the free contests of an open society. Brown did not because he never tested himself before his colleagues or the country.
For all the nostalgia among the Labour tribe, Blair can’t come back, of course he can’t. It’s politically impossible and undesirable. If Europe’s leaders have any sense, they will make him the first president of the
European Union. If he returns to our news broadcasts, mournful Labour MPs will once again see him charming the viewers, turning questions to his advantage and encapsulating arguments in phrase. As they watch, perhaps they will realise that in Gordon Brown they don’t have Blair without the charisma but Blair without the balls.