Alan Watkins: A standing ovation for a fallen man

The US Congress's rapturous reception of Gordon Brown will not yield a single vote this side of the Atlantic
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The Independent Online

I yield to few in my admiration for Mr Adam Boulton, the political editor of Sky News. On this occasion, however – the visit of Mr Gordon Brown to Washington – Mr Boulton's coverage struck me as being on the less than generous side. The commentator kept coming back to Mr Tony Blair's ecstatic reception after the Iraq war.

In fact the present Prime Minister received no fewer than 19 standing ovations, exactly the same number as Mr Blair had six years previously. Perhaps the applause was less full of zeal than it had been before. That could not be helped. A briefly successful war of aggression against a smaller state works wonders for the spirit of a representative assembly.

In any case, standing ovations are not what they were. They are given away cheap. When he addressed the United States Congress, CR Attlee got no standing ovations; Winston Churchill, a handful.

I am reminded of the young man from Wales who went to Oxford and was asked by the local MP, Lady Megan Lloyd George, how he was getting on with the English.

"All right," the young man said.

"Funny lot," Lady Megan said. "All that standing up and sitting down."

American political audiences are much the same. They expect to be pleased and easily pleased they are. Mr Brown is entitled to be reasonably well pleased with himself as well. But then, all prime ministers give in to the temptation to cut a dash in foreign parts. There was James Callaghan's "Crisis? What crisis?" on his return from the Guadeloupe summit, when the words were a Sun headline, not a quotation. And there was the Paris meeting to celebrate the end of the Cold War, when Margaret Thatcher chose to absent herself from her followers at Westminster.

Nothing too bad is going to happen to Mr Brown as a result of his brief absence from these shores, except that he is going to lose the election. He still clearly reposes hopes in international financial gatherings of one sort of another.

They will not shift a single vote. Things are too far gone. William Caxton himself might be manning the printing presses and the voters would remain, well, unimpressed.

Several of my colleagues in the writing trade – Mr Steve Richards in The Independent, Mr Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, perhaps one or two others – persist in detecting, not signs of recovery exactly, but hopes for the future.

I was never able to see it myself, though perhaps I never wanted to see it in the first place.

With every week that has passed since Mr Brown's rescue operation of the autumn – numerous other ministers or apparatchiks were involved in the exercise as well – the lifeboats concerned have sunk, capsized or sprung a leak. Thus it was up to the Government or its emissary, Lord Myners, to fix the terms of the pension arrangements of the former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Government, or its emissary, or both, made a muddle. It is too late now.

Earlier, Ms Harriet Harman made a reference to "the court of public opinion". This sounds to me suspiciously like the retrospective legislation that was eventually enacted by Sir Robert Walpole's administration after the South Sea Bubble of 1720.

Ms Harman used to be Solicitor

General, a practising solicitor and an official of what was the National Council for Civil Liberties (who once reported me to the Press Council, though I do not hold that against her). Ms Harman ought at least to have some idea of due process and the rule of law, instead of chasing after every populist idea that comes into the head of the editor of The Sun newspaper on a wet afternoon.

This is not a matter of simple ambition on Ms Harman's part. It is more complicated than that. New Labour is finished, done for, kaput, along with Mr Brown.

New Labour arrived not with the resignation of Neil Kinnock after the defeat of 1992 but with the death of John Smith. There was a subdued debate about the future of the party in this short period. Smith reformed the party on the lines of "one member, one vote" in 1993, aided by John Prescott. But the complicated electoral college which was set up as a result of the new procedures (and most recently produced Ms Harman as deputy leader) fell short of the slogan "one member, one vote". The prevailing slogan under Smith was: "one more heave".

Mr Blair was even more cynical than Smith, but effortlessly purveyed greater moral uplift, a quality he has possessed to this day. If we see Ms Harman as a representative of older Labour ("over my dead body," some even older representatives may exclaim), then Lord Mandelson stands for another way of looking at these strange times.

I first met Peter Mandelson in 1979 or 1980. I was then briefly chairman of something called the Political Advisory Group of the British Youth Council, the first and only quango with which I have ever been associated. I was paid nothing. It was conducted under the auspices of the Department of Education and Science, as it was then called. I was the only candidate to whom none of the other constituent bodies took objection. These included the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Communist Party (oddly, I thought) and, less oddly, the Boy Scouts. The Communist representative was Ms Sue Slipman and the Labour representative was Mr Mandelson.

He once turned up at a by-election I was covering for another paper as a researcher for London Weekend Television. His period of efflorescence culminated in his stint as press adviser to Kinnock, when he more or less organised the 1987 campaign. He was always civil but never effusive. Occasionally he used to talk to me.

"At this stage of your career," he once said, "your problem is...." At this point his attention was distracted, whether by somebody that he wanted to talk to or by somebody who wanted to talk to him. He moved away effortlessly, as if he had castors not big feet. So I never discovered what my problem was.

It soon became evident that Lord Mandelson, before he was a lord, was an intense romantic about the Labour Party. He liked to hear stories about his maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who had been deputy prime minister under Attlee (though not much was made of that at the time). I was not old enough to know these figures at this period, but I did know Dick Crossman, Tony Crosland, even the monstrous Tom Driberg. Lord Mandelson liked the old stories and old jokes.

And yet, not content with being provided with the elixir of life beyond Brussels, Lord Mandelson is determined to risk all once again. The part-privatisation of the Royal Mail was rejected not only by Mrs Thatcher (it is often forgotten) but by Michael Heseltine as well.

It only goes to show that politicians such as Lord Mandelson and Ms Harman go about things in opposed ways to satisfy their own ambitions.