Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Gordon just needs a good story, and a Campbell
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The Independent Online

"You are dogged," a frustrated George Bush told Gordon Brown as the Prime Minister insisted on getting the precise wording he wanted in the statement G8 leaders issued at their summit in Japan.

Doubtless, the US President would have preferred the more laid-back approach of Tony Blair, who would schmooze fellow leaders into a broad agreement and not worry much about the detail. Mr Brown is a man for the small print, most of which he writes himself. No wonder he is having trouble recruiting a speechwriter, surely the second worst job in British politics after being Chancellor.

Watching him in Hokkaido, it seemed to me that Mr Brown, at his first G8 summit, treated the other leaders rather like his cabinet colleagues while he was at the Treasury, being a master of every detail and stubbornly getting his way. Mr Brown seems to have caught the foreign affairs bug to which most Prime Ministers succumb. As Chancellor, he was interested in Africa but used what little time he spent with EU finance ministers to lecture his counterparts about Britain's economic miracle.

Today, global issues are also domestic ones: the credit crunch, the rise in oil and food prices and climate change, now an economic as well as a "green" issue because of the oil price. On all these fronts, Mr Brown was an active and apparently influential player in Japan. He also insisted on much stronger action over Zimbabwe than other G8 leaders wanted.

Yet I doubt he will get much credit at home for his tireless work on the international stage, which included a day trip to Saudi Arabia to address oil producers. He has failed to make a connection between his hyperactivity and people's lives. Yes, he mentions the price at the petrol pump and supermarket checkout. But it feels like just another politician's soundbite. Mr Brown has a story to tell, but is no good at telling it. He needs to deliver a brilliant speech that makes the link between his efforts to sort out global problems and the day-to-day pressures on families as the economic squeeze bites. Not just "I feel your pain" but "this is what I am doing about it" and "these are and will be the results". It won't be easy, and it may be beyond him. But he should try.

It's not just about oil and food prices. His government lacks a "story". On Monday, it might be the economy. Tuesday, health; Wednesday, education. Thursday, security. Friday, Britishness. The Government needs a coherent theme, whether opportunity-for-all or fairness.

Amazingly, I can't recall a cabinet minister making a recent speech explaining what the Government is about. Ministers talk about their own departmental briefs but not Labour's wider mission. Maybe they are waiting to see whether Mr Brown slips on another banana skin he peels for himself, like the 10p tax disaster. Perhaps some are waiting for their moment to tell him he's got to go. No wonder Mr Brown's personal ratings have plummeted. If the Government looks like a one-man band, then the voters will take out their anger about the rising cost of living on him, as they did in the local elections, the Crewe by-election and may do in Glasgow East on 24 July. That's why he needs to explain that energy and food prices are beyond his control.

Mr Brown also needs a strategy to sell, and more than one communicator. "Gordon seems to think that Tony's success was all down to Campbell and Mandelson," one close Blair ally says. (That would explain why he's trying to persuade Alastair Campbell to work for him, as I revealed last week.) "But Tony had heavy-hitters in the Cabinet who would rally round, especially when the going got tough. We could send out John Reid, David Blunkett or Margaret Beckett to bat hard for us. It's not happening now. The young guns in the Cabinet haven't fired."

Mr Brown may address the problem when he reshuffles his Cabinet. Alan Johnson, who tells a good story about the National Health Service, could bat for the Government as a whole.

The Prime Minister seems to hope that, if Britain emerges from the global storm, the voters will give thanks. Life isn't like that. The danger is that, by the time he comes up with a convincing explanation of the global forces at work and a forward-looking mission statement, the voters will have long since given up on Mr Brown.

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