General Election 2010

The Brown paradox

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His 'psychological flaws' have become notorious. And yet, says Donald Macintyre, Gordon Brown may just have saved his party

Exactly two weeks – and what now seems like a political generation – ago Gordon Brown was unexpectedly asked by a cheerful female Asda employee during a question-and-answer session at the company's store in Weymouth what was the oddest thing he had done for charity.

The question came at a time when the relentlessly criticised failures of the election were weighing heavily upon him. That day's Labour announcement – some sensible NHS proposals on expanding home care – were buried in the media. The campaign was by now repeatedly being criticised in an overwhelmingly hostile press. But a surprised Brown laughed gamely, and then there was a tiny pause, so agonising for all in the room that Sarah Brown gallantly opened her mouth to answer for him. In fact there was no cause for worry. Cutting through his wife's words he answered fluently that it was when Comic Relief "made me count every penny of the day's takings when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer", before going on – amid spontaneous and relieved laughter – to ask the woman the same question and to praise with evident sincerity all those who volunteered and collected for charity.

The tiny incident – "nice Gordon" at his best – goes some way to illustrate the paradoxical nature of this most complicated of British post-war politicians. Often warm and witty in private, capable of touches of grace (such as when he telephoned Peter Mandelson to offer condolences on his mother's death at the peak of one of their poisonous feuds), intellectually curious and literate, he could also be calculating, rivalrous, single-mindedly ambitious and witheringly aggressive to those perceived, not always rightly, as his opponents. He was a man capable of unleashing, in the words of his Chancellor Alistair Darling, long one of his staunchest allies, "the forces of hell" at those who incurred his disapproval. It is a testament to the force and timing of yesterday's announcement that the memory of his many "psychological flaws" (a term almost certainly attributable to Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell) will be counterbalanced – perhaps more than counterbalanced – by the service he has now performed for his party. It will also, for all his faults, reinforce his deserved status as a big figure, undoubtedly a member of the post-war Premier League of politicians.

The campaign he fought – including in the televised debates – did in fact keep Labour in second place, removing fears that his party might be superseded by the Liberal Democrats. And provided Labour does not now tear itself apart, his resignation yesterday bequeaths the party the opportunity to start afresh and build a leadership of the next generation which can re-establish it as the main – and still potentially formidable – challenger to British Conservatism.

The late Lord Jenkins warned some eight years ago in an interview with The Independent that "tail-end Charlies"– those who become prime minister at the end of a long period of rule by their party – can often have an unhappy time. Among that club of ex-PMs, Brown did not – perhaps fatally – follow the example of Anthony Eden and call an election almost as soon as he took office. But nor has his career ended with any of the ignominy of Eden's. He is leaving with dignity, having fought a gallant, dogged campaign to save Labour from eclipse. And as is its way, the party is going to feel exponentially better about him now.

As of his character, so it can be said of his political career. That Brown, from well before John Smith's sudden death in 1994, did much of the heavy lifting – particularly on economic policy – in order to propel New Labour into power is not in doubt. His role as the architect of the parliamentary defeat of John Major over VAT on fuel did much to weaken the credibility of the Tory government. It was not merely that he invented the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" that did so much, in the wake of the James Bulger murder, to establish Tony Blair, his friend and shadow Home Secretary, as a future party leader. It was that he – unlike Blair – paid a substantial price for resisting with unflinching determination as shadow Chancellor the temptation to ingratiate himself with his party by allowing the kind of expansionist tax and spending programme that much of it would have preferred.

There were other reasons that Blair moved ahead of course, including a sense even then that Brown did not have the same "touch". But his line on the economy – seen as essential to the New Labour project – did not help him personally in the leadership stakes. Finally, whatever criticisms can be made of the regulatory regime on financial services after the 1997 election – and there were of course some extenuating arguments for not threatening the international competitiveness of the City – granting independence to the Bank of England was a masterstroke; something which every recent Tory Chancellor, with the exception of John Major, had wanted to do but had never been allowed.

Brown's eventual decision not to run after Smith's death, which ensured what was in effect the coronation of Tony Blair, can be seen in hindsight as avoiding a repeat of the rivalry between Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins, which had, a generation earlier, arguably prevented either from becoming a Labour prime minister. On the other hand another interpretation is possible – one canvassed by Charles Clarke when the tensions between Blair and Brown first began to surface – namely that it would have been better for Brown to stand against Blair and (in Clarke's view) be defeated. For damaging in the short term as that might have been, it would have left Brown without that sense that he had been deprived, or perhaps deep down, deprived himself, of the chance to lead. Certainly the party will now have to resolve the differences between its "gangs" – to use the contemptuous term of one prominent Labour MP – with an open, decisive and perhaps cathartic leadership contest. In Blair and Brown's case, the uneasy pact between the two men, in which Brown was given a wide remit as Chancellor over domestic policy and in which Blair seems to have given Brown reason to hope that he would make way for him after two terms in office, did not prove a recipe for a stable relationship.

For the Blair-Brown axis became as destructive as it had been – and indeed often remained despite the feuding – creative. It was not only a result of Brown's tendency to surround himself as Chancellor with men including Charlie Whelan, Ed Balls and Damian McBride, who saw it as their role to promote – sometimes brutally – the Brown cause over Blair, and after 2007 the supposed "Blairites", at every turn. It was also that he tended on Europe and on public service reform to promote stances dear to the heart respectively of the right-wing press and the party stalwarts as a means of promoting his candidacy for the premiership. Indeed on Europe, one of those who went, while he was still Chancellor, for a meeting with him to express his concern about Europe was the young Nick Clegg, something that the Liberal Democrat leader may have remembered when he was contemplating the prospect of a Lib-Lab deal under Brown. It's also worth remembering that some of those in the commentariat who turned most vigorously against him during his premiership had also earlier been prominent in arguing that he was the answer to all the Labour party's prayers during the post-Iraq travails of the Blair premiership.

It's striking that after 2007, Brown more full-heartedly espoused the causes he had been so hesitant about during the Blair years, embracing an essentially Blairite attitude to public services, and counterintuitively becoming one of the most successful British prime ministers in Europe since the war. This was largely, but not only, because of his management of the financial crisis and his performance at the G20 summit earlier this year, which was widely acknowledged to have been masterful. Brown can indeed claim, along with Darling, to have led the way in tackling the consequences of the crash with a resolution and speed commended by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

This is no mean legacy, any more than is his role in the cancellation of third world debt, and the fight against poverty at home and abroad. It's also true that – contrary to some of the claims made about him by a few Blair loyalists during their feud that it would be impossible to have a Scot in Downing Street in the post-devolution era – he has been a stalwart of the Union. The stunning success of Labour in Scotland in the 2010 election owes much to many, including the able Secretary of State Jim Murphy. But Brown has almost certainly saved Scotland from a slide into nationalism.

As a party strategist, Brown may not always have lived up to expectations. He was certainly a primary architect of New Labour, and so in the eyes of those who think that John Smith would not have won power without changing the party, of Labour's stunning election victory in 1997, and indeed of the victories in 2001 and 2005. It is also worth remembering that the 2005 win came when Labour's popularity was already severely declining under Tony Blair.

In hindsight it's easy to see that he should have gone to the country earlier. On the other hand he was certainly astute in bringing back Peter Mandelson into the Cabinet. Their relationship had its bumps, particularly in November 2009 when the Business Secretary disagreed with him over the pre-Budget report, and when Brown failed to usher him into the EU foreign affairs job which Mandelson undoubtedly wanted. And while Mandelson may not have "saved" him after James Purnell's resignation, the appointment certainly helped to defuse any threat of a Blairite revolt. Mandelson remained his largely loyal – if hardly uncritical – lieutenant and ally up to election day. That may not have lasted beyond it had Brown chosen to stay amid a growing feeling in the Cabinet that he should go. But that does not take away from the dignity and decisiveness with which he has chosen to do so.

Back in 1994, Brown did in fact make a supreme personal sacrifice by deciding not to run against Blair. It was true that the polls showed steadily strengthening support for his friend and rival; but as the famously enigmatic letter sent to him by Peter Mandelson at the time pointed out, it might still have been possible to defeat Blair by summoning up "the dark forces" of the party, viewed by this New Labour triangle as the unions and the left. This Brown did not do, true – however painfully – to the New Labour cause and the belief that it was the only way to guarantee to return the party he loved to power after 18 years of Tory rule. It is not too much to say – even if many will say he was bowing to the inevitable – that he has made such a sacrifice again. Yesterday's move had been discussed in the party's upper reaches long before election day and first put to Clegg at the weekend. And it is not simply that he has given the party a chance, however slender, of creating a coalition with the Lib Dems which would make a great deal of ideological sense. He has allowed it the time and space to renew in time for what still could be an early election. Appropriately perhaps it's a line from the Scottish play that may act as his epitaph – political rather than actual, of course – that "nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it".

THE POLITICAL LIFE AND TIMES OF GORDON BROWN

1983 Elected MP for Dunfermline East

"The chance of a labourer getting a job in my constituency is 150 to 1 against. There is only one vacancy in my local career office for nearly 500 teenagers..." (Maiden speech in the House of Commons.)

1992 Becomes shadow chancellor

"It is not only the Chancellor but the Prime Minister who must accept full responsibility for... the incompetence of recent months." (Laying into the Conservatives after Black Wednesday.)

1994 Does not stand to be Labour leader

*Brown now insists: "There was no deal struck at Granita [a restaurant in Islington]. That's been one of the great myths. I'd already agreed with Tony before, before that dinner, that he would stand for the leadership and I'd stay on as the shadow chancellor."

1994 The new economic approach

"Our new economic approach is rooted in ideas which stress the importance of macro-economics, post neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationships between growth and investment, and people and infrastructure." (Seminar speech.)

1997 Chancellor of the Exchequer

"I want to set in place a long-term framework for economic prosperity... I want to break from the boom-bust economics of previous years." (After granting the Bank of England its independence.)

"My first rule – the golden rule – ensures that over the economic cycle the Government will borrow only to invest, and that current spending will be met from taxation."

1998 Prudence

"I said that this would be a Budget based on prudence for a purpose and that guides us also in our approach to public spending."

2000 Sarah

"She is beautiful, she's elegant, she's compassionate, she's dignified..." (Brown looks back on a decade with his wife earlier this year.)

"I'm so proud that every day I see him motivated to work for the best interests of people all around the country." (Sarah Brown on her husband in 2008.)

2001 Fatherhood

"This will be a big change in my life... Politics is now less important." (After the birth of his first child, Jennifer Jane, who died in infancy.)

"I'm a father and that's what matters most. Nothing matters more than that. Nothing." (After the birth of his son, John, in 2003.)

2004-07 The long feud

"There is nothing you could say to me now that I could ever believe any more." (Alleged remark to Tony Blair after Blair announced his intention to stand for a third term as Prime Minister.)

"At least I don't have to worry about him running off with the bloke next door" (Tony Blair, referring to the fact that the froideur between No 10 and No 11 now embraces the Prime Minister's wife as well.)

2007 Letting go of the Exchequer

"We will never return to the old boom and bust." (Final budget speech.)

2007 Prime minister at least

"On this day I remember words that have stayed with me since my childhood and which matter a great deal today – my school motto: 'I will try my utmost'." (Speech outside Downing Street)

2007 The end of the honeymoon

"He is the first Prime Minister in history to flunk an election because he thought he was going to win it." (David Cameron.)

"The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean. Creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos." (Vince Cable)

2009 Saving the world

"We not only saved the world – we not only worked with other countries to save the world's banking system, but not one depositor actually lost any money in Britain."

2010 Brown at bay

"She's just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour" (On Rochdale voter, Gillian Duffy)

"As you fight for fairness, you will always find in me a friend, a partner and a brother." (In a campaign speech to Citizens UK, left.)

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