Alan Watkins: Mr Brown has lost his bearings

It's one thing to take a wrong turning going to dine with the Queen, but there are more disturbing signs of the PM's disorientation
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The Independent Online

It was Roy Jenkins who made the comparison between David Owen and the Upas tree, in whose shade everything shrivelled. This was after Lord Owen had succeeded Lord Jenkins as leader of the Social Democrats, long, long ago, in 1983. Mr Gordon Brown has been putting up a similar performance as successor to Mr Tony Blair, after what has turned out to be an aberrant introductory three months.

In political circles, it has now become fashionable to assert that Mr Brown missed the boat in October last year – that he would have done better to accept the advice of the young sprigs who were then surrounding him and to hold a general election. I did not share the Labour Party's confidence then, and I certainly do not share it now. Too much had already gone wrong. The froth of the opinion polls, which showed that Mr Brown could do little wrong, concealed the movement of the waters beneath.

Today, poor Mr Brown can do nothing right. Somehow he contrives to be in the wrong, even when he was right to start with. Thus he managed to give the impression that he was cancelling his appearance at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in China when he had never agreed to appear in the first place. His only scheduled appearance was to have been at the end of the festivities, if such they are.

It takes a special sort of genius to produce such a muddle out of simplicity. No doubt the public relations men and women, supplemented by the forces of the advertising industry – all recently introduced into No 10 – have done their bit to add to the confusion. Mr Brown should have stuck to the brutish simplicities of Scottish politics which he learnt in his youth, though the products of that harsh school may not always add lustre to the present Government.

What seems to have made the voters even crosser, and rightly so, was not the confusion about the visit to the Olympic Games, but the spectacle of numbers of uniformly attired Chinamen running through the streets of the capital and threatening those citizens who were rash enough to get in their way. Lord Coe, who was one of the organisers of the London Olympics, described the invading forces as "thugs".

If protection for that wretched torch was needed, as it presumably was, what was wrong with a party from the Metropolitan Police? Or the Parachute Regiment, the England rugby team, or even the somewhat superior Wales rugby team?

Mr Brown, unlike Mr Blair, is not a great one, naturally, for populist gestures. But a phalanx of national heroes and heroines, military or athletic, would have served the Government's purposes better than a collection of Chinese stormtroopers.

I do not want to make heavy weather of this – that would be silly – but the episode illustrates Mr Brown's tendency, by now well-established, either to get things wrong or not to get them quite right.

Mr Michael Foot, Leader of the Opposition in those days, was attacked savagely and quite disproportionately for laying a wreath at the Cenotaph while allegedly wearing a donkey jacket. In fact, he was wearing what was called a Loden coat. It had been specially selected for the occasion by Jill Craigie, Mrs Foot, now, alas, dead. Even so, the incident became set in political mythology. There was nothing Mr Foot or anybody else could do to remove it.

More recently, there was Mr Brown's feat in becoming lost in Windsor Castle on the occasion of the visit of the French President and his blushing bride. This aroused nothing like the indignation which the then Leader of the Opposition had done. Indeed, most people saw its funny side; equally, however, most people would have expected the Prime Minister to be able to find his way to the table if he had been having dinner with the Queen; or I think so, though I have never found myself in that potentially difficult position myself.

It is fair to say that Mr Brown's farouche characteristics are not the immediate cause of the doubts about him on the back benches. They know Mr Brown and his strange ways. In an odd way, it is part of his charm. It is more his disposition to pick a fight, when there is no need to do anything of the kind, which is the reason for the unease.

As we learnt, Mr Blair loved a good quarrel. A row a day keeps the Daily Mail at bay: that was Mr Blair's slogan. With the Mail, he coupled The Sun and the rest of Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. The theory was that, on his accession, Mr Brown would rediscover his old friends, on the back benches as much as in the press.

Mr Brown is not a continuation of Mr Blair by other means but by the same means. He has embraced Anglo-American capitalism as enthusiastically as Mr Blair ever did. The trouble is that the system that Labour adopted with such zeal from 1997 onwards is no longer producing the goods.

A once-friendly commentator, now disillusioned (and she had many illusions), wrote last week that, nevertheless, Mr Brown was the "most intelligent" of recent prime ministers. Well, it depends how far back you want to go. Anthony Eden was highly intelligent and so was Harold Wilson. But the latter was a disappointment and the former a disaster. What is evident is that Mr Brown does not have any plausible idea of what to do next.

If he does have an idea, it must be to do with economic and financial policy. It is, after all, his only area of expertise. He was the longest-serving Chancellor of modern times, including David Lloyd George at the beginning of the last century. For much of this past decade, Mr Brown was planning to become Prime Minister. I write "planning", rather than "plotting", because Mr Brown, lacking decisiveness and, perhaps, a certain brutality, contented himself with grumbling.

What precisely Mr Brown had to do with the events of September 2006 is still a question of controversy. No matter. After all those years, after all that grumbling, the Prime Minister does not know what to do.

He should be devoting his entire attention to the economy and to extracting us from Iraq, with Afghanistan next on the list. So he could at least be restoring the 10p lower tax limit, or raising the threshold.

Instead, he is frolicking on the margins, as a former Labour minister, Harold Lever, once described that activity. After having resolved the question of plastic bags, he is broadcasting on American television about this country's gift of malaria nets to Africa and maybe to other regions.

It is even being suggested that Ms Harriet Harman should become Prime Minister, following a bravura performance at Prime Minister's Questions against Mr William Hague, when they were both substitutes from the front benches. Mr Alan Johnson has also been mentioned. It will not happen. Even so, the backbenchers are asking: have we all made a terrible mistake?