The Year in Review: British politics

The honeymoon that became a hangover
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The Independent Online

G ordon Brown was in the doldrums in January. He is again now. As a wildly oscillating political year opened with Tony Blair still Prime Minister, opinion polls suggested that Labour would be even more unpopular if Brown took over. In the summer, during Brown's extraordinary honeymoon, those polls appeared to be comically off-beam. By the end of the year, they seemed to be prophetic.

The poll findings at the start of 2007 fuelled seething speculation for several months that Brown would face a serious contender in a leadership contest when Blair departed. Throughout the spring, the more extreme Blairites sought desperately for an alternative candidate. Briefly it looked as if the then Home Secretary, John Reid, would be their man. When Reid stumbled at the Home Office, in a similar manner to his erratic performances in other briefly held ministerial posts, the Blairites turned to David Miliband.

Yet Miliband had no burning appetite to run. Sensibly, he resisted the flattering overtures from desperate men (and one or two women). In the end, and in spite of the bad polls, Brown had the field to himself as he had always wanted.

Note at the end of a tempestuous year that Brown tends to prevail in long, arduous political battles. Even when a political situation looks grim he has a knack of rising up and emerging victorious. In the summer he rose in ways that must have exceeded his wildest hopes.

Before Brown took an unthreatening primrose path towards the leadership, he had to wait and suffer. In his final months, Blair behaved as if he was on speed, announcing initiatives and reviews that were instigated partly to trap Brown into accepting what was known as a "Blairite" agenda. Although Blair knew he would be far away during the second half of the year, in the Middle East or delivering lucrative lectures, he wanted "Blairism", a vaguely defined creed, to live on in his prime ministerial absence. In the first half of the year, Brown and his entourage were in impotent agony as they saw Labour slump in the polls and Brown's personal ratings decline, too. There was nothing they could do but wait.

Then there was the moment when Brown briefly became a liberated politician. Some close observers say there was a second or two when it happened. Brown watched Blair on the office TV as his old rival declared publicly in Sedgefield that he was going. Apparently Brown became visibly more relaxed and looked younger almost immediately, as if two sacks of coal were lifted finally from his shoulders after more than a decade of anguish. The much talked-about transition was finally happening. For years, Brown had spent political energy demanding of Blair that he should go. Even more energy was devoured as he failed to move his wilfully determined neighbour. Now Blair had uttered the words. He was going. Brown's torment was over.

For a time it appeared as if, in his newly liberated state, Brown would show more his strengths more visibly as a political leader. In the summer, his opening months as Prime Minister were close to being a triumph. Terrorists attacked. The rain fell with an unprecedented intensity. Cows fell ill. Brown responded calmly to the seemingly elemental forces testing him now that he had finally reached the summit.

He also challenged successfully perceptions about him as a tribal Labour figure incapable of reaching out to the wider electorate. On the eve of his leadership, a Tory MP defected to Labour. Ministers were recruited from business and the military establishment. During the summer Brown's big tent bulged with unlikely figures proclaiming their approval of his leadership. The voters echoed the proclamation. During the first part of September some polls gave Labour an 11-point lead. The day after he delivered his speech at Labour's conference, the headline on The Daily Mail's front page declared that Brown had successfully won over women voters. Labour was also winning council by-elections in traditional Tory territory. For a few heady weeks it appeared as if Brown had assembled an extraordinarily broad coalition of support for Labour. Or at least, that is how it seem ed to some of Brown's advisers, who urged him to call an early election.

This was when it started to go wrong. Brown had every right to leave open the possibility of an early election. The mistake was to talk up the possibility, especially in front of journalists during a Labour conference in September that managed to be complacent and over-excited at the same time. At one point during that disastrously misjudged week, Brown's closest ministerial ally, Ed Balls, thought aloud on BBC's Today programme, speculating as to where the balance of risk lay in calling an election or delaying. Such reckless public comments fuelled the fever with two consequences. First, the Tories reunited at their party conference, assuming they would be fighting an election almost immediately. Second, Brown looked weak when he announced there would be no election. The error-strewn sequence almost destroyed Brown's carefully cultivated summer image as a solid, competent father of the nation. Suddenly he seemed partisan and calculating. Of course, all leaders are partisan. They would not be doing their job if they did not act in their party's interests. But Brown was seeking to convey a different, more consensual image. In the early autumn his cover was blown.

Once more it was as if the gods had decided to intervene and cause further havoc. The crises in the autumn made the summer floods and the outbreak of mad cow disease seem tame. The new crises were much worse. Yet, once more, Brown was not directly culpable. Discs went missing containing sensitive information about 25 million people. There was a another funding scandal. This one had a film noir quality about it, when Inspector Yates of the Yard, the tormentor of Blair's final years, announced he would be advising the latest police investigation. Just when ministers thought it was safe to go out, Yates was back to send shivers down their spines. Arguably most damaging of all, the credit crunch in the US made waves here and the Government had to shore up Northern Rock with staggering sums of cash. Brown will be praying that the gods will intervene in his favour and help him to get all the taxpayers' money back.

While these crises erupted around him, Brown still started to shape discreetly a post-Blair agenda. In relation to the public services, there is less focus on the mechanics of "choice", a term Brown never uses. Instead, he highlighted the need to improve standards in schools and hospitals. The outcome of the year-long review of the NHS next summer will be pivotal. As Schools Secretary, Balls announced a range of potentially life-enhancing measures, from raising the education-leaving age to 18 to new diplomas as a possible alternative to A-levels.

Brown hinted at a strategy to move the poisonous debate about Europe away from institutional reform once the latest controversial treaty has been ratified. Britain's disastrous military mission in Iraq was brought closer to completion and Brown established a more businesslike relationship with President Bush after the "love-in" of the Blair era. His visit to Bush in the summer was a masterful reassertion of the special relationship while signalling a distance from neo-con adventurism. He received rave reviews from the journalists covering his first trip to Washington for accomplishing the balancing act with verve.

On the environment he promised radical measures in a meaty speech in the autumn. The speech was one of several that were more substantial than subsequent reports suggested. In one speech on liberty, philosophers from the 17th century to today were cited as Brown made his case. No one doubted that Brown would have read the original works, probably several times. He showed in his early months at the helm that he is a serious and seriously well-read leader. But towards the end of the year, Vince Cable's jibe that Brown had moved from being Stalin to Mr Bean in the space of a few months resonated more.

The summer seemed like another land as Brown struggled to recover his authority. As the year ended there were some signs of rumblings from within the ranks. At the height of the whirling autumnal storm, some Labour MPs wondered whether Brown would survive up until the next election. There were criticisms of his public performances, especially at Prime Minister's Question Time. Privately, some ministers suggested that his style of leadership meant that the Government had become dysfunctional. Brown was accused of seeking to micro-manage every department with only his small entourage truly trusted. Again, such criticisms made the heady days of the summer seem far away. In those far-off months, Brown had been praised for reviving cabinet government. Ministers emerged from their weekly meetings excited that they had spent time debating policies. Briefly they seemed like prisoners escaping from the darkness. By the end of the year some of them felt trapped again.

Some of the criticisms will fade if Brown can govern in a period of calm. He has been a highly effective parliamentary performer in the past. He has not become a permanently inept one in 2007. He was well known as an astute strategist. When they were getting on better several years ago, Blair described Brown as a strategist of genius. Miscalculations over the timing of an election do not mean that Brown has lost all his previous skills. In the Queen's Speech debate in October, Brown outlined some of the new dividing lines with the Conservatives on Europe, public spending and education, arguing that Labour was the party that represented the many rather than the few, a revival of one of New Labour's most famous slogans. No one noticed that Brown was moving on to fruitful terrain in terms of policy because of the context in which that Queen's Speech debate took place, one of political gloom for the Government. If the context changes in 2008, voters will pay more attention.

That is a big "if" after 2007, the year that began badly for Brown but then appeared to offer an almost intoxicating sense of promise. Now he has to rise again. He has risen from dark depths before, but as he seeks to do so once more, the next year will be even more nailbiting in its intensity than the last one, which saw one of the most extraordinary reverses of political fortune in recent times.

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