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

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

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.