Bruce Anderson: Brown is learning that trust is won by telling the truth - not by strutting and spinning

Thanks to No. 10, demoralisation grips Whitehall. The machinery of government is suffering
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The Independent Online

Things can only get worse. Given the parliamentary arithmetic, there is nothing to prevent Gordon Brown waiting until spring 2010 before calling the next election. But there are other factors in play. If matters were to continue as they are, such a delay would be impossible. Long before then, there would have been a psychological implosion.

Before Mr Brown took over, his political opponents were waiting for the "psychological flaws'' of the "out-of-control colossus'' to manifest themselves. For three months, it seemed that they might be disappointed. Something unusual, if not unique, appeared to be happening. In his fifties, Gordon Brown was undergoing a personality change.

If so, he has now changed back. While terrorising ministers, he is being foul to officials and especially to the staff in No 10. There is an epidemic of demoralisation in Whitehall. One of its principal symptoms is leaks. All this will have an increasingly deleterious effect on the machinery of government. To paraphrase Marx, Gordon Brown's history repeats itself: the first time as temper tantrums, the second time as farce.

It is hard to imagine anything more farcical than the treatment of Admiral West (with the possible exception of the Admiral's acquiescence). At 8.20am, he is not convinced of the need to detain terrorist suspects for more than 28 days. Within three-quarters of an hour, he has changed his mind.

The Admiral would have us believe that this Damascene moment occurred over breakfast in No 10. Well, they must have an unusual breakfast menu (how do you like your thumbscrews done, sir?). It sounds far more like an "interview without coffee'', to use a Services term for an uncomfortable session on the carpet. If Gordon Brown can break an admiral as fast as that, perhaps he should be in charge of interrogating suspects. Yet this is not a laughing matter. Security is hardly a fit subject for farce, when tragedy is an ever-present threat. A prime minister who turns security into farce is unworthy of his office.

It seemed a good idea to bring Admiral West into government. A man above politics, whose rank surely guaranteed his integrity, he could mobilise expertise and provide reassurance. But all that was blown out of the water last week. There are only two alternatives. The first is that after more than four months, Alan West's grasp of his portfolio was still so shaky that he was persuaded to alter his view on a crucial issue in a twinkling of bacon and eggs. The second is that he was instructed to recant or resign. It is hard to decide which is worse. We know that he pulled out of a TV interview yesterday morning. What use is a man in his post who has to develop an alternative engagement because he could not answer the obvious, awkward questions?

Not content with bagging an admiral, Gordon Brown rounded off his week by humiliating a Foreign Secretary. David Miliband had a speech ripped up a few hours before he was due to deliver it. As Mr Miliband must be aware, he was already having problems being taken seriously.

The important embassies in London are in no hurry to report his opinions to their governments as the voice of British foreign policy. They know that he is merely a ventriloquist's dummy who has fallen into the hands of a sadistic master. So any further damage to Mr Miliband's reputation is irrelevant. He will never be allowed to take an important decision. Alan West is different, just as Sir Ian Blair is different. With them, we are not dealing with an office boy who happens to enjoy the foreign secretary's pay and perks. We are dealing with life and death.

Admiral West can no longer command public confidence, any more than Sir Ian Blair can. Although they show no signs of doing so, there is an obvious course of action for both of them to take. Yet if they are determined to cling to the husks of office, neither of them need despair. With this Prime Minister, their jobs are safe as long as they demonstrate political subservience. Gordon Brown would far rather have damaged figures who dare not answer back than men like General Sir Richard Dannatt, who insists on defending the military covenant. Gen Dannatt knows how to do his duty. He ought to be the next Chief of the Defence Staff. If Gordon Brown has his way, he will be the UK's permanent representative in Guantanamo Bay.

Even before the sinking of Admiral gone West, the 28-day question was arousing suspicions, especially in view of one point which has been used to justify it: the need for more time to download suspects' computers. Let us dissect that witless argument. The terrorist suspect is seized, with his computer. It might contain life-threatening plans which could be turned into life-saving information.

Twenty-eight days? Twenty-eight minutes would be just about acceptable. If the security services do not already have the necessary resources, they must be provided with them, instantly. Nothing less will do: such computers need to be scrutinised in the time it takes Admiral West to gobble his breakfast and grovel to Gordon Brown.

That said, there are two plausible reasons to extend the detention period. The first is the hope that in solitary confinement only mitigated by interrogation, prisoners would crack and talk. The second is the need to have legislation on the statute book in advance of some God-forbid outrage.

Neither is conclusive. It would be interesting to try to reconcile the first one with the Human Rights Act. Both of them might well impede intelligence-gathering among British Muslims. It is all too possible to imagine circumstances which would necessitate a round-up of all the 2,000 or so persons whom the security services regard as dangerous. In that case, we would need more than detention for a set period. We would require internment.

There might be a case for introducing a legislative framework which would cover the most drastic contingencies, and there is a precedent: the old Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. It would be amusing to hear a Labour minister arguing along such lines. But in a crisis the government could always declare a state of emergency and use Orders in Council to give itself the necessary powers. The case for an increase from 28 days has not been made. On current evidence, Admiral West was winning – until he made an unfortunate choice of breakfast companion.

But this debate is not about finely balanced arguments. It is about dishing the Tories. That was why Gordon Brown was so angry about the Admiral's intervention. He would like to use the detention issue to claim that only he is tough enough to be trusted on security matters. As the PM is finding out, however, politicians win trust by telling the truth, not by strutting and spinning. Thanks to the Admiral, a lot of voters now realise that Gordon Brown is spinning national security. That not only ought to do the PM's reputation abiding damage. It probably will.