A week really can be a long time in politics. After the Labour Conference, David Cameron called for an immediate election. He sounded like an officer in the Light Brigade briefing his troopers, just before the Charge. Mr Cameron and other leading Tories had to appear nonchalant. They could not be seen to funk an election; they would leave that to Gordon Brown. But as the party assembled in Blackpool, no sane Tory wanted an early contest.
Yet by this weekend, there was genuine enthusiasm for battle in the Tory ranks, followed by disappointment when Mr Brown ran away. The Tories can console themselves. When the election does come, it will be easier to win outright. In the meantime, they can find amusement by reaching for a thesaurus, in search of synonyms for "chicken" and "bottle".
The credit for this transformation is easy to allocate. It belongs to David Cameron. It is his birthday on Tuesday. He is entitled to enjoy it. While some of his colleagues were showing signs of panic, he not only kept his nerve: he did so without apparent effort. "This is as good as it gets for Gordon," he said back in July, expressing serene confidence that the Brown bounce would be brief. One of his advisors added that there was no point in attacking Mr Brown as long as the voters were prepared to listen to him. That would change, but until it did, premature onslaughts would appear to be born of desperation and might even rebound. That is no longer the case.
When the history of these years comes to be written, last week's Tory Conference will emerge as a fateful event. It may have been the most important party conference in political history, and no party leader has ever delivered a more successful speech than Mr Cameron did on Wednesday. He took an awesome gamble by speaking without an autocue for over an hour. Suppose he had tripped over his feet at any stage? That would have made the headlines, and Mr Brown might be about to call an election. Great outcomes can turn on small events. For want of an autocue, the election was won.
Gordon Brown cannot be blamed for the delay. It was the least bad of two gruesome alternatives. No sane Prime Minister calls an election half-way through a Parliament when the polls have swung against him. Mr Brown can console himself. He has now ensured that he will remain Prime Minister for longer than Bonar Law, Eden, and Home. This is all the consolation which he is likely to find.
Admittedly, the sovereign people have not been at their stoutest of late. Their volatility rivals the Roman mob's in Julius Caesar. But this is no reason to believe that Mr Brown can recover, any more than Brutus could. We are not dealing with a swinging pendulum, but with a collapsed soufflé. Gordon Brown will not rise twice.
He did have a remarkable few weeks, in which he attained two objectives which had seemed impossible. He concealed his personality and he covered up his government's record. On the latter, he succeeded because he was able to sublimate events into politics. There were problems: floods, foot and mouth, Iraq. But in each case, the Prime Minister did not have to do anything except seem portentous. At the same time, his body language was conveying a briefly effective message. Everything that you enjoyed about the past 10 years is down to me, while all the failures and the spin are buried with the other fellow, whose name need no longer concern us.
Until late September, this tactic was successful, but that will not endure into the frosts of autumn. As Parliament re-enters the picture, so do events, including the European constitution. From now on, they will determine politics, not vice-versa.
Mr Brown's character flaws have been chronicled by Tom Bower, but also by Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Andrew Turnbull, who all worked closely with him, as well as in scores of anonymous briefings by ministerial colleagues. All these witnesses portray a gloomy, obsessive, profoundly selfish and insufferably ill-tempered man, wholly unfitted for the stresses of high office.
Yet over the summer, Mr Brown has presented himself as an upright, old-fashioned Scottish bank manager, but one who could make the occasional joke at his own expense. He wanted us to know that a warm heart beat behind the partner's desk. He wanted the voters to see him as honest, caring, strong – and he was getting away with it.
Not any longer. A strong leader does not grovel in the small print of the opinion polls. An honest and caring leader would not have done what he did over the troop movements from Basra.
It is worth dwelling on that episode, which is probably the most immoral act ever committed by a Prime Minister. Eden's lies over Suez and Blair's sexed-up dossiers might seem worse; their long-term consequences were certainly much more serious. But those two PMs at least had an excuse. They believed that duplicitousness was necessary in the national interest. So in personal moral terms, they were vastly less guilty than Gordon Brown. He has no national interest excuse. He was merely perpetrating a grubby little election stunt.
The mothers, wives and girlfriends of serving soldiers are condemned to long periods of strain. The men in the field have duties to distract them, comradeship to sustain them and hard days to ensure that, when there is time to sleep, it comes easily. The women at home have little to protect them from long, anxious hours followed by turning and tossing sleeplessness, interspersed with bad dreams. The doorbell rings: pray God it is not the chaplain. So when the waiting women heard that a thousand men were to come home for Christmas, there would have been widespread joy. Surely my Johnny will be one of them? Then it turned out that 770 out of the thousand had either been notified of their departure or were already back in Britain.
Re-opening hospitals which were already open is one thing. It was squalid, demeaning and dishonest. Indeed, it might have seemed unworthy even of Gordon Brown, but for the Basra deceit. The fact that the PM thought he could get away with it tells us what a low opinion he has of the voters' intelligence. So did his claim yesterday that postponing the election had nothing to do with the polls. Yet the hospital caper was harmless.
It did not raise the hopes of thousands of decent people; the hopes of the females who are joined in the self-sacrifice of the fighting men in the combat zones of Iraq: raise those hopes, and then dash them. What is a strong word for contemptible?
A man who behaves in this way must be devoid of human sympathy. A man who spins soldiers' duties and lives is not fit to hold any important office, let alone the Premiership. It is not yet certain that Gordon Brown will lose the next election. It is certain that he deserves to lose.Reuse content