Alan Watkins: He had no lines, yet he fluffed them

In the Gurkha revolt, Mr Brown was invoked as an all-powerful, off-stage presence. It didn't last 24 hours
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The Independent Online

Watching one of Mr Gordon Brown's several strange appearances on television in recent weeks, I immediately noticed a small coloured poster of a swastika positioned just behind him. Subsequent reports said there had been several of them, forming a kind of tableau or display, but only one of them caught my eye. He had been speaking at a school.

The symbol adopted by the Nazi Party in Germany before and during the last war, was presumably a visual aid for some lesson or project. At an earlier stage of the century, the motif was used decoratively for crockery, textiles and, sometimes, printing. Later on, such was the hatred for Hitler in this country that the design was everywhere excised. Today, we may have recovered an element of sanity and proportion when it comes to the depiction of the national flags of vanquished powers.

Even so, if I had been in Mr Brown's position (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir) I should not have chosen to stand in front of a swastika when addressing the television cameras. And, of course, it could have happened to anyone. Schools are notoriously tricky places for politicians. When Mr Tony Blair was addressing a similar audience in the same part of London, a girl comprehensively buried herself in her pullover to avoid having to listen to a word he said.

But Mr Brown seems to be unluckier than most. Surely there are people in No 10 or among the broadcasters whose business it is to avoid embarrassing or merely inconvenient backdrops? Nor can Mr Brown be expected to bear the full share of responsibility for last week's entertainment with Miss Joanna Lumley. She is a grand old trouper who is also highly articulate, a true professional who does not short-change her audience and last week gave two matinee performances. Mr Brown appeared off-stage. His words and actions were retailed to us mainly by Miss Lumley and, later, by the immigration minister Mr Phil Woolas.

It is a favourite dramatic device: the mysterious character who does not appear but is a figure of apprehension and awe to the rest. Miss Lumley first depicted the Prime Minister as all-wise, all-seeing, all-powerful. That was the light in which Mr Brown no doubt saw himself, with terrorism and the floods in the summer of 2007, and the collapse of capitalism in the autumn of the following year.

With the lapse of 24 hours, and a game of hide-and-seek in the corridors of the television studios of Millbank, the picture of Mr Brown presented by Miss Lumley was less firm in outline and less determined in expression. She had received five letters from Gurkha veterans that informed them that they could not settle in this country. She had not been told this and no one, apparently, had told Mr Brown.

Mr Woolas now seemed less firm and less determined than his master had been on the previous day. He is a loyal apparatchik from Lancashire who came up through student politics and owes everything to New Labour. His normal mode of discourse is genial bullying, but can readily resort to the soft answer that turneth away wrath. Mr Woolas tried inviting Miss Lumley to dinner, but that might have been only a joke.

Mr Brown's mistake was to become involved with Miss Lumley in the first

place. There are processes and procedures for dealing with prime ministers, as there are with all members of the Government. Over time, these laws, rules and conventions may change. For example, the Chancellor's period of "purdah", is now largely forgotten. The minister was expected not to communicate with anybody in the somewhat ill-defined period before a Budget. Likewise, Cabinet minutes were more or less made up, depending on the cabinet secretary of the day.

Mr Blair developed, or inaugurated, an informal system of "sofa government". It did not bring about the Iraq war – for Mr Blair was determined to fight with the US – but the system made the war easier to undertake. The former Secretary of the Cabinet, Lord Butler, turned this into his chief criticism of the Government in his report on the war.

Mr Blair's critics in the party and the Government made this one of the sturdiest planks in the platform to support Mr Brown for most of the decade before 2007. In Mr Brown's latter period as Prime Minister, Mr Blair's faults – concern for effect, consultation with all the wrong people – have been magnified rather than remedied.

But Cabinet government may yet be restored, though much good may that do to the present administration. The Government's policy is to privatise the Royal Mail. This was a step too far even for Michael Heseltine, because the whole process might have proved highly awkward. Margaret Thatcher stopped short, even though it was on the rather childish basis that it had "Royal" in the title and was accordingly contrary to tradition and disrespectful of the monarchy.

Along comes Lord Mandelson and proposes to do substantially that. I use the word "substantially" because the proposal may be modified. The suggested compromise would be on the lines of Railtrack, with the service being split between the public and the private. This is not a very happy precedent. To get from one place to the next by rail now requires the combined talents of a leading mathematician and a Chancery lawyer. It is a complete nightmare; our mail might disappear into the night, never to be seen again.

Whatever the final proposals may be, there is bound to be a Labour rebellion of some description. With the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats combining to defeat the Government, is another humiliation for Mr Brown likely? It is clearly possible, even with the evasive action which is now being talked about but may fall short of a complete withdrawal of the measure.

There is a precedent that older politicians may remember. The Labour government fell in 1979 because of a vote in the House of Commons when there was a majority of one. It did not fall because of the trade-union troubles of the previous winter, though they were certainly to play a significant part in Labour's clear but by no means overwhelming defeat at the subsequent general election. The government fell because the nationalist and other small parties withdrew their support for James Callaghan, and transferred it mainly to Mrs Thatcher.

They did this because the then government was paralysed by Scottish devolution and did not know what to do next. It did not know what to do next because in November 1978 the house had passed an amendment erecting a hurdle. This had required a certain majority of the votes in Scotland. The result of the Scottish referendum was a majority for devolution but not by enough. And the result of that was that Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister.

I do not say that Mr David Cameron is going to become Prime Minister before the end of the year. What I do know is that political changes have a method of working themselves out in unexpected ways.

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