Sunday 11 November 2007
Alan Watkins: The good ship Brown is yet to put to sea
Despite 10 years of experience at the dispatch box, a becalmed Prime Minister is merely lashing out at his baiters
In his array of political theorists that Mr Gordon Brown cited the other day, one philosopher remained unmentioned. This was Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century author of the principal – perhaps the only – work of systematic theory in the English language. I have no wish to go in to Hobbes's views on law and sovereignty in a newspaper designed for family reading, but, rather, to retell a story from the Court of Charles II.
The ancient sage used to hang about the palace, where he was highly popular. The younger, more dashing courtiers, however, (the equivalent of, say, the friends of Princes William and Harry), used to make fun of the old man, in which the monarch would join. The king would say: "Heare comes ye beare to be baited."
Since the re-establishment of the bear pit that is the House of Commons, after the party conferences and including the debate on the Queen's Speech, the Prime Minister has increasingly resembled one of those poor, tormented creatures from our cruel past. Or, to take a more permanent analogy, he is like the boy who is always being teased.
Many such bullied children (for that is what the treatment amounts to) learn to turn the teasing to their advantage. They make jokes which cause their tormentors to look silly. But, just as often, the victims will become angry; lose their tempers; lash out. Their persecutors will laugh even more loudly. This is the position in which Mr Brown now finds himself.
After last Tuesday's encounter between Mr Brown and Mr David Cameron, a columnist – broadly sympathetic both to the Government and to Mr Brown – could be heard lamenting: "It's not fair." It was not fair, it appeared, that Mr Cameron was the product of wealth, of an established place in society and, above all, of Eton College. This is phooey of a high columnar order.
Mr Brown was just as well educated as Mr Cameron. As the son of a minister of the established Church of Scotland, his position was as secure as Mr Cameron's, if not more so. In any case, Aneurin Bevan could wipe the floor with anybody. Even Jim Griffiths could open the emotional tap and have the Tories crying in to their whisky and sodas. More recent Labour figures – who were not, perhaps, the debating equals of their predecessors but who did manage to become Prime Minister – always managed to keep their end up across the floor of the Commons.
True, Harold Wilson had a nasty surprise when he only just won the 1964 election. But in the ensuing six years, including devaluation, he never ceased to be in control of the House. After 1976, James Callaghan seemed to be in even greater command. "There, there, little lady," Jim would appear to say to Margaret Thatcher, "some of us have had experience of these great events."
Callaghan gave the impression of having been at the dispatch box for ages, as, indeed, he had been, for a total of eight years in office altogether.
Mr Brown has been there for 10 years, in one post, where he had a more successful spell than Callaghan enjoyed in any one of his three positions. In the next few months, admittedly, Mr Brown's Treasury parcel may start coming apart at the edges and the Government may be in big trouble all round. But the immediate point is that, with Mr Brown's whole decade of experience, he does not appear as much at ease as Callaghan was.
There is one recent exception: the period taking in Mr Tony Blair and Mr William Hague. But the exception was more apparent than real. Mr Hague made some excellent jokes; and jokes they remained. Mr Blair began by being disconcerted but quickly regained his composure. The distinction lay less in the difference between the contestants than in the expectations of their followers on the backbenches.
The Tories behind Mr Hague and Mr Iain Duncan Smith, and Mr Michael Howard, all thought they were going to lose, as they duly proceeded to do; whereas the Tories behind Mr Cameron, after a loss of confidence in the middle of the year, most of them think they are going to win or, at least, to do enough to force Labour out of office.
The loss of nerve of the Labour side is equally striking. The cries of "More, more," after yet another of Mr Brown's crude and ill-tempered responses, are reminiscent of the claque organised by the theatrical producers in 18th-century Drury Lane.
Does it matter: I mean, dominance of the House of Commons? There are two apparently contradictory positions which can be held simultaneously by the same person. They date from 1961. I am precise because this was the year when J F Kennedy became President, so inaugurating the era of personality in politics. It was also the year when Prime Minister's Questions was established in the House. For almost the past 50 years we have been told that power is draining away from the House of Commons. In the same period we have been urged that the same precious commodity is being fed in to other institutions or persons, particularly in to the Prime Minister.
And yet, the Prime Minister owes his or her whole existence to the House of Commons. It was the House that brought about the fall of Mrs Thatcher in 1990, acting first through a party vote in the Commons, and only later through the Cabinet. In 2003 the House took us in to war with Iraq. In 2006 it was the Labour members, or a good number of them – rather than the trade unions or the constituency parties – who made Mr Blair set a date for his departure from office.
Besides, no other leader in the western world has to undergo the ordeal which the Prime Minister has to suffer at Prime Minister's Questions. It used to happen twice a week until Mr Blair came to office, when, however, the new period was doubled in duration.
Very few people, I imagine, watch the proceedings on television as they are going on between noon and 12.30pm; but huge numbers see excerpts on the evening news bulletins, while sharp politicians, and even sharper commentators, offer their opinions about whether the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have done well or badly, whether they are up or down, whether their supporters are happy or miserable.
It is still possible to put down a question on a specific topic in advance. Most members, however, prefer to engage in a free-for-all. Short of abolishing PMQs completely and reverting to the system that existed before 1961, we are stuck with what we have.
Of course, it may be that with good intentions, patent sincerity and manifest competence, Mr Brown can emerge with his credit unimpaired or even enhanced. This was the impression which he conveyed in the summer. But then, for most of that period, the House was not sitting.
It defeats me that Mr Brown has to go looking for fights, whether they are about the extension of a detention period from 28 days to 56, or whatever it might be, or about the plans for identity cards. Things may change, but the good ship Gordon Brown has yet to be relaunched satisfactorily and is still in dry dock.
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