Monday 13 February 2006
Bruce Anderson: Our Chancellor has neither the skills nor the temperament to be Prime Minister
To do justice to Mr Brown's ego, you have to resort to Narcissus, Mr Toad, Jeffrey Archer
Gordon Brown is a know-all. He also thinks that he is the Government's best performer in everything it does, including election campaigns. This assessment is not shared by the Blairites. They believe that the Chancellor is best employed out of the public eye, doing the 17-times table backwards, while the Prime Minister enchants the voters. During the last election, they decided to side-line Mr Brown. Mr Blair's dynamic new friend, Alan Milburn, was to run everything. So he did, for about two days, in which he proved as dynamic as a wet meringue. Gordon watched. Tony began to panic. Gordon sat on his hands and chortled. Tony had to ask him really nicely if he would condescend to take charge, after all.
Gordon rubbed it in. He is good at that. His best friends - they do exist - would not claim that he does modesty. He proved them right. The Blairites smarted. For the past couple of days, they have been taking revenge. Never have so many senior members of a political party taken so much delight in losing a by-election. It happened in the constituency where Gordon lives, after a campaign in which he had meddled and disregarded all other counsel. The Blairites are dancing around the bonfire of Gordon's vanities. So are many Labour members of the Scottish Parliament. If anything, he has been even more contemptuous of Labour politicians in Edinburgh than of his English colleagues at Westminster.
This causes problems. Gordon prides himself on thinking things through. In this case - and not for the first time - he substituted arrogance for thought. He had not reckoned with the consequences of devolution. He went to Scotland. He found that there were troublesome local issues which were impeding the Labour effort. So he barked out some orders. In England, his cabinet colleagues would have had no choice. They would have had to do what he told them, for fear of being punished in the next public spending round. In Scotland, Mr Brown does not control the spending round. To his fury, he discovered that no one would obey him and that he had no power to make them do so.
The Dunfermline by-election was scandalously overlooked by most commentators, including this one. Yet it has provided fascinating snap-shots of the current state of British politics. It has reminded us that Scottish devolution is an unsolved crisis, that Scotland is becoming a different country - and that Gordon Brown is not fit to become Prime Minister.
Mr Brown spends most of his weekends in Scotland. As with the late John Smith, however much time he spends in London, the ground of his being is in Scotland. Yet over the past few weeks, it has become clear he does not understand his own country.
The devolution settlement, which Mr Brown has always applauded, gives the Scottish executive extensive powers and a lot of money. It has enjoyed itself by exercising the one and spending the other. Its members are not distinguished. Most of them give the impression that they would be overstretched as seventh in charge of Strathclyde Council's anti-smoking unit. Not only that, when called upon to explain why they are spending billions of pounds of tax payers' money on worthless projects, they are often pathetically inarticulate.
There is a good Scottish word which ought to pass into general usage: mouthless (pronounced mooth). Its meaning is apparent and it applies to large swaths of the Scottish Parliament. A lot of MSPs make John Prescott sound like Demosthenes.
Those of us who always opposed devolution could feel vindicated, except that the consequences are so grim. A former editor who used to support devolution admitted the other day that it had made everything in Scotland worse. It has condemned the poor country to government by the thick, the resentful, the inadequate, the wasteful: the chronically incompetent.
To judge by his demeanour over the past few days, Gordon Brown would regard that as a charitable assessment. But there was no point in his behaving like a Colonial Secretary in the days of Empire, when dealing with a very junior governor of a very trivial colony. Jack McConnell, the First Minister, a Labour machine politician, is a cunning fellow. Though not remotely qualified for his responsibilities, he is one of the abler members of the pygmy Parliament. He would make an adequate Provost of Cumbernauld. But he knows how to remind Gordon Brown where power now lies in Scotland.
In response, Mr Brown had only one option: persuasion. As his powers of persuasion are on a par with his modesty, that did not work. No doubt encouraged by Mr Brown, a Westminster Labour MP said that the Labour MSPs were not fit to organise a piss-up in a brewery (untrue: that might be the the ideal role for them). An MSP retorted that Gordon Brown was behaving like an over-tired seven-year-old. A Scottish Tory journalist (not yet an oxymoron) wrote a piece laying into the Labour MSPs. A government minister rushed up to congratulate him.
This is excellent comedy, but there is a serious conclusion. After less than a month of Gordon Brown on the stump, the Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster and their affiliates at Edinburgh were at war. Yet running a government requires collegiate skills as well as dictatorial ones; and Gordon Brown would make Margaret Thatcher seem indulgent. To do justice to Mr Brown's monstrous ego, it is no use looking for mere historical parallels. You have to resort to fictional characters: Narcissus, Mr Toad, Jeffrey Archer.
Although the Blairites know this, there is nothing which they can do. As some of them resignedly recognise, Gordon Brown will become Prime Minister - and open the way for David Cameron.
That might seem a bold claim, after the Tories registered an even worse fourth place result than they had at the general election. But there is an explanation. By the election, it was known that Rachel Squire, the MP, was dying. So the Liberals, who had a good result anyway, gave themselves the weekend off before preparing for the by-election.
The Scottish Tory party is funded by a rich man called Irvine Laidlaw. He provides it with swanky offices, generous salaries and limousines. As a result of this largesse, the Scottish Tories have forgotten how to fight. A number of their MSPs never went to Dunfermline, which is only a short drive from Edinburgh. Lord Laidlaw is supporting complacent mediocrity; not something he would ever have tolerated in his successful business career.
It is not something which Mr Cameron should tolerate either. The Scottish Conservative Party needs a bomb under it. Even so, the Labour Party in Scotland has a more immediate reason for anxiety. For the Tories, Scottish seats are an optional extra. For Labour, they are essential.
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