Alan Watkins: The Prime Minister is exhausted already

The most bizarre crisis since the South Sea Bubble has made helped make the Prime Minister unlikely to go to the wire
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The Independent Online

At the end of March, Mr Gordon Brown will have been in office for nine months. He does not look as if he has been enjoying himself very much. Appearances, however, can mislead. At the beginning of his premiership, he would meet complete strangers in Whitehall with the cheerful greeting: "How y'a doing?" perhaps adding "good to see you!". This was in the season of summer parties in SW1. How long ago it all now seems!

Perhaps Mr Brown still greets passers-by as happily as he used to do. He will, after all, have beaten Andrew Bonar Law's record by two months. If he goes the full distance, he will be there till June 2010 (for some obscure parliamentary reason, a five-year term has an extra month added on to it). He will have ended up with three years at No 10, slightly above Neville Chamberlain and slightly below James Callaghan. Neither of these went down as a great prime minister, though both did their best, often in difficult circumstances.

My own feeling is that Mr Brown will not go the whole way. Certainly I predicted that he would not do what many of his friends and supporters were urging him to do in autumn last year. Indeed, the prevailing orthodoxy of the time was that, as The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh put it, Gordon was "going to win, and win big".

The wisdom of the wise then shifted by 180 degrees: for, if we were not having an election in 2007, we were not going to have one till 2010. It does not follow, by any means.

The truth is that Mr Brown is already exhausted by office: not merely by the tribulations of the past six months (for the Prime Minister's real troubles did not begin till October), but by a whole decade of struggle with Mr Tony Blair, and before that three years of opposition under Mr Blair, and before that again his time with John Smith. No wonder the poor chap is tired out.

It was, of course, Smith not Brown who was responsible for the "Shadow Budget" of 1992, which was widely believed to have lost – or, at least, contributed to losing – the election fought by Neil Kinnock. Mr Brown, as far as I know, has not spoken or written about this episode in any detail.

But the policies of the Labour party before 1997 and of successive governments afterwards certainly reflected the consequences of this election. Thou shalt not offend the Daily Mail: that was the message for Labour. If Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, notably The Sun, could additionally, in one of Mr Alastair Campbell's phrases, be "brought on side", that would be even more satisfactory. Mr Murdoch duly obliged, as he continues to do to this day, even if with less enthusiasm on his part as he used to display in former times.

Throughout this lengthy period, I would puzzle about what the precise differences were between the Brownites and the Blairites. For example, we were told that, while Mr Blair favoured the market, Mr Brown inclined towards universal provision by the state.

It then appeared that Mr Brown supported no such thing. He was dishing out taxpayers' money to companies without risk to themselves (the companies, I mean, not the taxpayers). In the end, the company would own the asset in question. There had been nothing like it since the South Sea Bubble.

Other devices encouraged by Mr Brown resembled machines for perpetual motion; the drawings of which, I am told, cannot be filed or registered at the Patent Office, but are readily available in the city, Mayfair, St James's and other centres of financial skulduggery.

In the months that have passed since Mr Brown's elevation, he has become more Blairite than Mr Blair. In the weeks after the run on Northern Rock, Mr Brown's overriding – it might be said, his sole – political objective was to avoid nationalising the bank. It was not so much that he did not want to take any necessary action (though he did not want to do that, either) as that he was determined not to use the dread word "nationalisation". The Liberal Democrats wanted nationalisation; even the Labour back benchers, or most of them, wanted it ; but Mr Brown and his Sancho Panza, Mr Alistair Darling, would not budge, until they were compelled to shift their positions by the movement of events.

Mr Brown was the longest serving chancellor of the 20th century (the runner-up was David Lloyd George in 1908-15). It might have been too much to expect any show of contrition for what had gone wrong after his long spell at the Treasury. Politicians are not like that; Mr Brown is not like that. But the prime minister could at least try to perform some kind of educative function. Some hope!

Even so, we all realise that Mr Brown did not personally lend money to poor people with only the slightest prospect of getting it back and then sell on the debt like a chain letter. But Mr Brown might at least have a go at reasoned exposition, without endlessly repeating those slogans he comes out with at Prime Minister's Questions.

It is the same story over Iraq. Last week he was attempting a lame defence, as was his Foreign Secretary, Mr David Miliband, who seems to be increasingly pleased with himself, for no good reason that I can see. It is much better to say: sorry. I am not expecting any festival of self-abasement; rather, an admission of error, what the Victorians would have called "manly".

The war was, as it remains, more criminal than Suez and more catastrophic in its consequences. My colleagues in the political press sometimes write that its memory is "fading". This is usually in relation to the Liberal Democrats.

It is not my own impression. Nor is it merely because our television sets have been showing endless programmes about Iraq. For many people, loyalty to Labour came to an end in 2003. The victory in the election of 2005 concealed the loss of trust in Labour rather than continued in the old ways.

Mr Brown has come round to promising an inquiry, with the proviso, not very detailed, that the troops would first have to be home. This is a bad idea, not that the troops would first have to be home (the sooner the better, as far as I am concerned) but that the inquiry should be held at all.

There have already been four inquiries, raging from the party hacks at Westminster through the security committee in the same place and then Lord Hutton to Lord Butler. I have read some of this but by no means all of it. A new inquiry might reveal a few fresh facts but would not change our understanding of what happened. The committee would begin in a flourish of headlines but in three days the papers would have become bored.

After many months, the report would conclude that, while many mistakes had been made or (in a hallowed phrase) errors of judgement committed, the Government's intentions had been defensible. In particular Mr Blair was not to blame. And Mr Brown was most certainly not to blame. Not even Mr Brown would try to go to the country on a prospectus like this.

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