Adrian Hamilton: Why Brown can draw comfort from New Hampshire

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If Gordon Brown is heaving a sigh of relief at the New Hampshire primary results, it is not only because he has put so many eggs in Hillary Clinton's basket – which he has – but also because of the obvious parallels with his own situation.

Here is a candidate, Mrs Clinton, who has worked all her life for this one job, full of prepared positions and with an absolute belief in her own rightness for the job, facing a rival who has none of her experience or even "seriousness"', but has all the glamour of youth, freshness and the promise of change.

No wonder the British Prime Minister quailed at Obama's recent success, and no wonder now that he is relieved that Hillary has shown that the dogged virtues of dutiful determination and experience can still win over the more enticing images of a younger competitor.

Of course the parallels are not exact. Brown is in position, Hillary has still to get there. Cameron has his party's nomination, Obama is still seeking it. There are all sorts of peculiarities in the New Hampshire result that make it particular to itself, not least a refusal by a small, independent-minded electorate to be dragooned into joining a bandwagon by the polls.

But the central question remains: in today's democratic politics, do voters plump for for image and mood, or hard experience and professionalism? The arc of Brown's ascent to power has been peculiarly similar to Hillary Clinton's pursuit of it. They both started well-prepared, with the full machine of their party behind them, ideas worked out, ruthless ambition driving them onward. And in both cases it worked. In Brown's first months in office, he carried all before him, just as Hillary Clinton did in the early stages of the democratic presidential candidatures.

And then in a flurry all changed as Clinton, like Brown, seemed too well-prepared, too much of a machine politician compared to the freshness and passion of the young contender, who spoke not at people but to them. In the terrible imagery that overtakes modern politics, Brown, as Clinton, seemed to embody the past while Barack Obama represented the future. A public that seemed settled on the front runner then reversed track completely.

So can Brown take real comfort from Hillary's comeback and dream that he, like her, can clamber back up the greasy pole of public opinion? He'd certainly dearly wish to. You can take Hillary Clinton's resort to tears as spontaneous or calculated (I tend to the latter view), but what is true is that it reflected the deep emotional frustration of a politician who believes they are born for power, and have all the ideas to use it, facing the competition of someone who (to them at least) has none of their attributes and none of their ideas, who doesn't deserve, in other words, to succeed. Gordon Brown might not resort to tears, but you can see of late the near despair and rage in his eyes that the public could prove so fickle as to prefer such a lightweight figure as David Cameron.

And he can undoubtedly take comfort from Hillary's come-back. In all the explanations for her success in New Hampshire there does seem to have been solid sense that, at a time of growing economic problems, particularly in the housing market, voters turn back to the comfort zone of experience. When all seems to be going swimmingly well, voters can afford to take risks. When things start to look tight, they prefer a pair of safe hands and look rather more critically at the inexperience of untried candidates.

In Britain, of course, Brown is still denying that there is a fear of recession, partly because he could be blamed if there was. But he is regarded as a safe pair of hands, whereas Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, may not be as the going gets tougher. Brown could also learn some lessons from Hillary here about comeback. Following her victory she said she had "found her voice", in an odd way repeating the experience not of Brown but of John Major in 1992 (Hillary also at one stage in the campaign got on a soap box). Coming across as a human being, relating to your audience, and showing yourself as human is a trick which the British Prime Minister has still to learn.

But the basic problem remains, for Brown as for Clinton. In today's democracy, when politics is treated as a sport where everyone rushes to support a perceived winner – hence the volatility of the polls – experience cuts both ways. It can seem a strength in times of trouble but equally a symbol of the past when voters want something fresh and young. Brown, like Hillary Clinton, is respected but he is not liked by the public. And being liked could still be the crucial factor in their final success – or failure.

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