A flawed deal, but credit to Brown for his efforts

Although Barack Obama inevitably stole the headlines, it was the British Prime Minister who led the way, says Political Editor Andrew Grice
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown can't claim to have sealed the Copenhagen deal, but he can say that he had a hand in avoiding the catastrophe of "no deal".

The Prime Minister worked in his usual Stakhanovite way in Copenhagen, sometimes from early morning until 3am the next day, trying to broker deals and trade-offs. He was in a good position to be a bridge-builder, trusted by both the African countries for his long track record on aid and by industrialised nations for his lead role in tackling last year's financial crisis. His experience as Chancellor made him a natural choice to break the deadlock over how much the rich countries should pay poor nations to tackle climate change. It was Mr Brown who in June was first to propose a $100bn-a-year fund by 2020. It seemed very ambitious at the time but was to become a crucial part of the Copenhagen agenda.

Last night Mr Brown put a brave face on the deal but could not disguise his frustration. "It is progress, but it is not enough," he said. His work is far from done and characteristically he launched a new crusade. "I am now going to lead a campaign round the world for a legally binding treaty," he announced. But with the general election fast approaching, the Prime Minister's capacity to influence the next stage of the climate change debate may be reduced. The next major talks in Germany could even coincide with the British election.

Tony Blair was a schmoozer, charmer and broad brush man at international summits. Mr Brown is more like a bulldozer with no brake and a dogged details man.

Mr Brown described Copenhagen as the most difficult negotiations he has ever been involved in. "Too many hours," he quipped last night. His goal was to repeat his success at the G20 summit in London in April on the economic crisis, dubbed "the $1 trillion summit". The lesson he drew was that differences need to be narrowed as quickly as possible. So he went to Denmark two days earlier than planned on Tuesday.

It didn't quite work this time because other countries were less willing than Britain to take the dramatic action needed. And last night's crucial trade-off was between the US on the one hand and China, India and South Africa on the other.

However, Mr Brown's high profile at the talks illustrated the gulf between government and opposition to the domestic audience. Even an administration which appears to be running out of steam and time can still "do" – and make a government-in-waiting look rather irrelevant. The frustration in Tory land is palpable. David Cameron may have made green issues a key element in his rebranding of the Tories but he adopted a low profile over Copenhagen, probably to avoid a row with the many Tory MPs and activists who are climate change sceptics. The Tories were so wary they didn't even call for an inquiry into the leaked University of East Anglia emails.

Although last night's agreement fell short of expectations, Mr Brown can claim to have helped prevent a disastrous failure. He was the first leader to say he would go to Copenhagen. He could have been left out on a limb if other big players had not followed his lead. In the end, 120 did, including President Obama. Given the huge obstacles, the leaders' attendance was probably necessary to avoid total collapse.

Team Brown regarded the London summit as his finest achievement. They hoped it would provide crucial momentum for a fightback against the Tories. Yet it was quickly overshadowed by the leak of damaging emails written by his close aide Damian McBride revealing plans to smear senior Tories. Good Gordon at the G20 followed by Bad Brown's darker side. One step forward, one step back – a regular pattern in his premiership. He may have saved the banks but, after the minimalist deal in Copenhagen, time is running out for Mr Brown to save the planet.