Monday 8 June 2009
Bruce Anderson: Brown clings on – dithering, bloodied, but not yet broken
Gordon Brown can't make a decision – but he won't let others decide either
In the early 1980s, there was a scandal in the Irish Republic. Although the details are long forgotten, it endowed us with a useful phrase. Charlie Haughey, the then Irish Premier, described the events as "grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented" – which was instantly abbreviated to Gubu. Britain now has a Gubu government.
It was a Gubu reshuffle, but we should not content ourselves with laughing it to scorn. The resignation of the Defence Secretary, John Hutton, helps to explain why this has become such a rotten government. Mr Hutton had become browned off with serving in it. He is 54, a little old to relish the endless frustrations of long years in Opposition. So he tells us that he is leaving politics to spend more time with his family.
All well and good, except that he is Defence Secretary. Doesn't he know there's a war on? A soldier serving in Afghanistan would have great difficulty in obtaining compassionate leave. Thousands of military wives and children would love it if Daddy could spend more time with his family. But these soldiers and their families know their duty. It is contemptible than the man in charge does not know his. John Hutton could have announced that he was standing down at the next election. In the meantime, he should have stayed at his post. Because he deserted it, we now have the fourth Defence Secretary in four years. That is no way to treat the armed forces. The veterans were right to boo Gordon Brown.
The only excuse to be made for Mr Hutton is that ministers in this government have never been encouraged to take themselves seriously. A Defence Secretary will enjoy all the prestige of that great office. For anyone with a feel for history – which John Hutton has – it must be a wonderful appointment. But the glamour soon wears off if you are never allowed to take a decision. The Admirals and Generals may be respectful, but the hapless minister will still sense their frustration.
"What's the matter with the fellow?", they will be saying to themselves. "We gave him the options two weeks ago. Why can't he make up his mind?" There is a simple answer to that, but he can hardly be expected to admit that this government is run by a dithering tyrant who will neither allow his ministers to take decisions nor take them himself. Often, indeed, he will not even take his ministers' phone calls. The crucial papers are stuck on a desk as the mobile phones fly overhead and secretaries of state have to cajole and flatter junior No.10 advisers in order to find out what is happening.
So one can understand why John Hutton became so fed up that he quit. He should still not have done it. Even if Gordon Brown treated him as a cipher, that is not how the armed forces and their families regard him – and Whitehall is less of a hardship posting than Helmand Province. They are not yet shooting at each other in Hell-Gord Province.
There are plenty of other grounds for censuring the reshuffle. One of them is the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. If you have not heard of it, you can relax, for it has now been wound up after only two years in existence. John Denham – not heard of him either? – has earned his place in history, as the first and last Secretary of State at the DIUS. But forget about running a government; this is no way to run a bath. When a new department is established, there is disruption. Costs are incurred. After two years, everything should be settling down. So scrapping the whole thing and starting again, if not the full Gubu, is certainly bizarre: more cipher treatment.
In view of all this, Caroline Flint can hardly be blamed for resigning because she was not promoted to the Cabinet. After all, she had supported Gordon Brown. That must be worth a promotion. But she may have been unwise to object to her exclusion from the PM's inner circle. Did she really want to compose e-mails with Damian McPoison?
Miss Flint was also unfortunate. In her letter of resignation, she complained that the PM had shown no respect for her intellectual qualities. The implication was that he regarded her as mere eye-candy. But every newspaper's photo archive had pictures of her looking like a professional model. No-one had any recollection of her saying anything interesting about policy.
Even so, that was no reason for Mr Brown to keep her out, given some of the dunderheads in Cabinet. Why not invent a new ministry? The Department of Sultry and Pouting, perhaps. Or should it be Innovation, Skills and Lipstick?
But it is hard to believe that Caroline Flint has only just realised that this Labour government regards its women as a decorative part of the constitution. To be fair to Gordon Brown, this started under Tony Blair, who was often photographed with his female MPs and never paid any attention to their views. What is the collective noun for Labour's ladies? A catwalk. It is extraordinary that the girls never complained. After all, most of them would claim to be feminists. Miss Flint herself is a former head of the women's unit at the National Union of Students. But after 12 years of docility, it is a bit late to complain about sexism.
Now the case of Lord Sugar. His was a strange appointment. It would appear to have all the defects of populism, except popularity. There is a further factor. Alan Sugar is to have a role in geeing up business. But we already have a Business Secretary, the Lord Mandelson, who has shown no reticence in his dealings with commerce. Peter Mandelson must have approved the appointment, confident that he could turn Alan Sugar into the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Yet Lord Sugar is not used to subordination. It is easy to imagine him asking Lord Mandelson how many businesses he has run. It will not make for good government, but it should be fun.
Which is more than they had in East Ham yesterday afternoon. Gordon Brown arrived with Peter Mandelson and Harriet Harman, to talk to Labour activists and the TV cameras. There were some successes. For once, Mr Brown looked as if he had enjoyed a night's sleep. Lord Mandelson managed not to look bored, which must have taken a lot of self-control. Lord, the tedium: it was as if Todor Zhivkov, the last Stalinist ruler of Bulgaria, had held a public meeting to allay anxieties after the Communist Party's vote in the Plovdiv by-election had fallen to 99.8 per cent.
Most of the audience seemed to be Labour councillors. It was lucky for Mr Brown that there had been no local government elections in London, otherwise he would not have had enough councillors to fill a small room. The average questioner talked in jargon and congratulated the Great Leader on his achievements, especially in the NHS. To judge by the hall, the health service in East London has had plenty of money to pay for humour-ectomies.
The meeting was obviously organised at short notice by summoning the trusties, hence the Soviet-era loyalty. It would have been better to choreograph the odd passage of dissent. As it was, the event gave the impression that Gordon Brown was only addressing his core vote: "core" spelt with an initial "b". But the PM did not look like a man in the grip of despair. Any Labour MP who might have hoped that one more push would dislodge him would have been disappointed.
This piece went to press before the Euro results. If Labour should finish fourth, the fires of insurrection may be uncontrollable. Otherwise, it looks as if Gubu Roi will hold on: battered, bloodied but not yet broken.
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