Labour in crisis: Bottler! Burglar! Phoney! Brown takes a battering

The Prime Minister, so long revered for his strategic genius, has piled error upon error, and needs to act now to rebuild his credibility. By Brian Brady
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown escaped from the Commons chamber so quickly on Wednesday afternoon that he left many of his briefing notes behind. The Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, was already into his speech about health and social care when one of his colleagues scurried back to the benches behind him to collect the PM's things.

It wasn't forgetfulness that made Mr Brown so neglectful; it was the force of an onslaught from David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions that left allies and enemies alike questioning his character and his political judgement more seriously than ever before.

But it was not the first time Mr Brown had suffered such reservations over his abilities. The public humiliation at the hands of his most bitter rival was merely the culmination of at least five serious lapses of judgement within a few days that have raised significant doubts over his capacity to run the country as effectively as he once promised.

Wednesday began badly for the Prime Minister, even before Mr Cameron got to his feet to administer devastating surgical strikes to his political credibility.

Mr Brown, visibly bristling from an impertinent contribution from an obscure Tory, Robert Neill, raising a question mark over his "bottle", attempted to carry on regardless – and stumbled blindly into every Cameron put-down.

He was "the first Prime Minister in history to flunk an election because he thought he was going to win it". However, his apparent limitations were more cruelly exposed by the Tory leader's taunt that: "For 10 years you have plotted and schemed to have this job, and for what? No conviction, just calculation. No vision, just a vacuum." The Prime Minister's cry for help, a plaintive reminder that Mr Cameron had pledged an end to "Punch and Judy politics", merely proved his point.

Labour MPs sat rigid and grimly silent. Now, more than ever before, a Tory leader was saying out loud what many of them increasingly feared in their own hearts about the true powers of their leader. Old Labour MPs might have accused Tony Blair of being mendacious and evasive, but how nimble he would have been in the face of the acerbic onslaught that stopped the bulldozing Mr Brown in his tracks.

Mr Brown's first miscalculation had been to allow the speculation over an early election to power on, at least for a crucial extra week, when he could have settled it – one way or the other – in the days before the opinion polls started to turn against him. The delay, when colleagues had expected a dramatic announcement as early as the Labour Party conference last month, allowed the Tories to regroup and hold a remarkably successful conference distinguished by well-received plans to relieve the burden of stamp duty and inheritance tax.

The Brown camp's consideration of an early general election began as a mischievous attempt to destabilise the opposition; last weekend the ruse descended into a humiliating retreat, as the Prime Minister finally called off Labour's escalating election-planning operation. The "young Turks" advising him bore the brunt of the party's anger.

"They've never been anywhere, they've never done anything, they owe their positions to the Prime Minister, and that came through on this occasion," complained grizzled former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle. "This is a decision the Prime Minister takes. This started as a jolly jape to wind up the Tories and it got totally out of control."

Worse, for a leader revered for his judgement and strategic genius, was the handling of the declaration. Rather than make a blanket public announcement, the Brown camp decided to schedule confirmation via a pre-recorded BBC interview for broadcast last Sunday morning. Inevitably, details of the Brown interview seeped out on the Saturday evening, leaving the BBC's Andrew Marr to brief the world on the Government's decision.

While the Government refused to speak about the decision until the interview was shown, Mr Cameron was in the happy position of being able to weigh in first with his response.

The mishandling of the momentous announcement was compounded the following day, when Mr Brown faced the media in a farcical Downing Street press conference and attempted to explain and justify the decision. The Prime Minister, who had digested the figures showing a Tory recovery over breakfast last Saturday before finally ruling out an early election, insisted the decision "had absolutely nothing to do with the state of the opinion polls".

"I saw the opinion polls – and the many seats we would have won," the Prime Minister explained. "But I returned to my first instinct, to give time for our vision to be realised, to implement our vision."

A game attempt to dig himself out of a hole but, while it failed to convince at the time, the strategy was in tatters barely 24 hours later. Mr Brown had previously limited his vision to grand assertions about tackling overwhelming issues such as poverty at home and abroad. His first detailed policy package, delivered in the joint mini-Budget and spending review on Tuesday, looked suspiciously like a rushed rip-off of the Tory plans he had derided: chiefly through moves on inheritance tax, non-domiciled tycoons and airlines.

Colleagues confirm that Mr Brown was incensed at the "lazy journalism" that failed to highlight "subtle differences" between the inheritance tax proposals and those presented by the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, the week before. Nevertheless, the government machine signally failed to rebut accusations that Mr Brown had compiled a "magpie Budget".

It was the fourth in a mounting series of strategic misjudgements, which raise huge questions over Mr Brown's reputation for tactical excellence and political nous. The most damning condemnation of Mr Brown and his team of advisers may be their failure to recognise the ammunition they were providing to the opposition – and to prepare him for the inevitable lines of attack.

However, when Mr Cameron seized upon the strategic disarray at Prime Minister's Questions the following day, the Clunking Fist had no response. He had no prepared riposte for the predictable – albeit clever – jibes over his barely credible excuse for not calling an election, his judgement and the gratuitous excerpts from his own book on courage.

Among the Labour MPs who watched the baiting in stony silence, the earlier euphoria over the new regime's seamless progression into power has, within a matter of days, given way to anxiety over where it will go next. "You have to ask whether Blair would have allowed himself to get into this mess," one said, "and, if he had, would he have taken the rap."

Mr Brown made many unexpected gains during those frenetic early months, when he proved a credible statesman in the face of crises including terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks. These now appear to have been frittered away when it comes to the complicated business of running the country effectively.

Thus, one Brown ally last week wondered aloud whether his man might merely turn out to be an effective "wartime leader"; never has a comparison with Sir Winston Churchill brought such cold comfort.

The uncomfortable past few days might not signal a momentous shift in the political landscape but, at the very least, Mr Brown has stimulated the Tory recovery and surrendered precious momentum. At worst, they have exposed limitations that helped to scupper his Labour leadership bid 13 years ago.

The trip to negotiate the final wording of the European constitutional treaty this week may provide an opportunity to rebuild some of the credibility that has slipped away.