At the beginning of this year, a shrewd friend of mine said that I was in a good position to understand Gordon Brown's difficulties because I had watched the same thing happening to John Major. I disagreed. The PM was in a hole, certainly, but the comparison with Sir John was too far-fetched. I was right. Gordon Brown's position is not as bad as John Major's was. It is far worse.
In 1995 – Tory MPs re-elected John Major as their leader with a two-thirds majority. He regarded that as a barely adequate endorsement. Mr Brown would have no hope of doing that well. Moreover, by 1995, the economy was reviving. Norman Lamont's green shoots were turning into a verdant harvest. The voters refused to notice, but the Tories could still hope that this would change, like the garrison of a beleaguered fort waiting for the US cavalry in an old-fashioned western film.
In this case, there was no relief. The hostiles swarmed over the walls and scalped the defenders. But 20 months before the 1997 election, it was not certain that the economic recovery would be voteless. Tories who hoped that something would turn up were not being absurd.
Today, few economists expect much of a recovery in time for the election. For some months to come, everything is likely to turn down, and Mr Brown has a further problem. I remember the way in which John Major's ministers would froth with frustration at the treatment which they received from the press. A minister and his officials would work hard on an initiative. The speeches and press releases would be ready, and all over Fleet Street, the response would be the same: yawns. Tories with a good idea; who cared about that? Instead, journalists would phone up a couple of Europhobic backbenchers, persuade them – never hard – to insist that Britain must reject the single currency for all time, and then see what Ken Clarke had to say. It rarely took more than three phone calls to justify a "New Tory Split on Europe" headline. Today, the same is true for "New Labour Doubts about Brown Leadership".
This week, the TUC is meeting. In the bad old days, when trade union leaders' opinions mattered, the TUC conference was usually run as a benefit match with a political collection for the Tories. The same will happen this time. Trade unionists whose mouths are bigger than their brains will relish their brief respite from obscurity, however much damage they inflict in the process upon the party which they nominally support.
It has come to a pretty pass when the Leader of the Opposition has to tell the Prime Minister that it is time to get a grip on his party. In an interview published yesterday, David Cameron commented on Gordon Brown's hapless indecision; what is a strong word for dithering? Mr Cameron finds the spectacle as bewildering as it must appear to Labour loyalists in the constituencies, if there are any left. The Labour party must make up its mind: back him, sack him, or continue to do neither, en route for one of the heaviest defeats in political history.
There is one crucial question; what does Mr Brown himself think? Some Labour people, not all of them opposed to Mr Brown, are unsure how long he will stand the strain. They wonder whether he might wake up crying one morning and be unable to stop.
This may underestimate the role of No 10 as a comfort zone. That building is designed to buoy up prime ministers. Their working day is interspersed with briefing material of the highest quality and the most fascinating content. There is also the constant contact with other leaders: "Prime Minister, the Federal Chancellor would like a word. Is 10 o'clock convenient?" Some commentators – and Labour MPs – make it sound as if Gordon Brown were chewing off his fingernails in a death cell. It is true that 10 Downing Street has often been the ante-chamber to political mortality, but it is an exceedingly well-appointed and well-disguised death cell, which can insulate its occupants from their impending doom.
In 1985, during one of Margaret Thatcher's regular bouts of mid-term unpopularity, Alan Clark used a characteristic image. "It's like the Fuhrer-bunker in March 1945. The boots and uniforms are still immaculate: the Heil Hitlers still snap out: last place in the Reich you can get a decent cup of coffee – but 150 miles to the east, another armoured division has just been rolled up." Well, Margaret Thatcher fought her way out of that bunker and the evidence suggests that Mr Brown also intends to go on fighting.
If the rumours are right, he plans to deploy the most remarkable wonder-weapon in his speech to the Labour conference. He is going to sound humble. It might seem that he has as much chance of bringing that off as he does of singing counter-tenor at Covent Garden: that he must be absolutely desperate even to contemplate such a bizarre miscasting: that if he did try, his speech would turn into the first pantomime performance of the 2008 Christmas season. But it would be worth watching.
Poor old Gordon: to be reduced to mimicking Uriah Heap, whose conversion to humility did occur in a cell, and not a comfortable one. As John Major could tell Mr Brown, there is only so much any premier or leader can do. Once his party refuses to be led, that is that. In the Labour Party today, as with the Tories in the mid-90s, the inmates are in firm control of the lunatic asylum.
There is one possible corrective. Messrs Hoon (Chief Whip), Johnson, Darling, Miliband D and Straw, plus Miss Harman, should meet. They should decide for once and for all whether the PM goes or stays. If the decision is "go", hand him the revolver and the whisky bottle: their resignations to follow if he will not do the decent thing. If it is to be "stay", they must organise the mother of all rallies-round. Indeed, they must pretend that "go" was never an option.
This is unlikely to happen. The probability is that Labour MPs will blunder on, meeting every problem with an open mouth, until they finally blunder into the voters.Reuse content