Andreas Whittam Smith: Brown is plunging down the same abyss as Major

Harrassment can begin when a PM's personal qualities are lacking

Related Topics

Before Gordon Brown, the only prime minister of the past 60 years to have found himself constantly vilified was John Major. If two similar episodes are enough to constitute a trend, the manhunt is a new development in British politics. There are similarities between the two cases.

For the hounding to begin, the prime minister of the day has to have suffered a severe policy or political setback sufficient to call his or her leadership qualities into question. Mr Major's agony started in September 1992 immediately after Britain was expelled from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a system linking together European currencies that was a precursor to monetary union. In Mr Brown's case the seismic event was his failure to call an election soon after taking office when he might have won. As Robert Browning wrote in the "Lost Leader", "never glad confident morning again".

That Mr Major had been the victor in a general election against the odds a few months earlier made no difference. The house newspaper of the Conservative Party, The Daily Telegraph, said the expulsion from the currency system was a defeat "almost as complete as it is possible, in peacetime, to conceive". It didn't help that Mr Major had been the architect of the policy two years earlier as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It is also a requirement of the chase that the dogs must have consumed some raw meat. Mr Major's Cabinet colleague, David Mellor, was brought down in the same month as the exchange rate disaster with tales of extra-marital activities. Norman Lamont, Mr Major's Chancellor of the Exchequer whom he had kept in post after Britain's expulsion from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, was the next to go as a result of a press campaign. Then soon afterwards Michael Mates, junior minister at the Northern Ireland Office, had to step down following revelations of dealings with a fugitive financier, Asil Nadir.

At first glance Mr Brown has offered less sustenance to the press hounds. He had to sack Damian McBride from his private office after it was discovered that Mr McBride had been discussing the possibility of disseminating rumours about the private lives of Conservative Party politicians. But instead of a series of forced resignations, the exploitation of the parliamentary expenses system by Cabinet colleagues and MPs of his own party as well as the Opposition has had the same effect. For the press had the satisfying experience of ripping away the cover-up.

But there is one more requirement that has to be met before the harassment can begin. The personal qualities of the prime minister must be such that they render him or her vulnerable. In Mr Major's case it was what was perceived as an absence of political ideas. Nigel Lawson, who had been Mrs Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer before Mr Major, said he "never detected any political beliefs in Major. Beliefs were not important to him. Politics, not ideas, were his game".

Charles Moore, the editor of The Daily Telegraph at the time, wrote that, "I think he has no actual views at all". And as to the crucial subject of Europe, Mr Major's biographer, Anthony Seldon, commented that Major lacked a gut instinct on Europe, for or against. "He shared none of the powerful apprehensions of the sceptics not the strong positive instincts of his colleagues Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd."

What makes Mr Brown vulnerable is similar. The charge is that he is a ditherer. To which can be added the reputation for dishonesty that taints the entire Labour front bench, derived as it is from an addiction to spinning stories for the media and over-claiming achievements.

The path that Mr Major walked from his election victory in 1992 to defeat at the hands of Tony Blair in 1997 was lonely and painful. From early 1994 there circulated reports that Cabinet ministers were privately disparaging him. Mr Lamont openly described Mr Major's leadership as weak and hopeless. On the backbenches sat 70 former ministers, 60 of whom were critical.

In March 1994, for the first time since 1963, a backbench member of the PM's own party called openly for his resignation. Lord McAlpine, the former party treasurer, described Mr Major as "the stupidest prime minister we have ever had – a bitter, nasty man". Stories began to circulate about him being lonely and isolated from trusted lieutenants, and his health and sanity were questioned. Mr Brown is marching along the same, grim road to oblivion.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform