Bruce Anderson: The Chancellor's desperate reinvention will fool nobody - he remains a control freak

Instead of rummaging through Tony's desk for a tin of stardust he should revel in austerity
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The Independent Online

It looks as though Charles Clarke was right. A couple of weeks ago he attributed some of Gordon Brown's problems to an underlying insecurity. At the time, that seemed a curious comment, more vindictive than perceptive. Since Mr Clarke's assault, Gordon Brown has tried to deal with his critics by reinventing himself. It has been a clumsy and insecure performance.

Yesterday, there was another reinvention interview in which the Chancellor repeated two words over and over again: "new" and "devolution". Mr Brown does not only want a new Prime Minister. He wants a new politics, in which power would be devolved, away from central government.

Gordon Brown, a devolutionist? There is a devolved government in Scotland. It is largely run by Labour politicians, some of whom used to be on friendly terms with Mr Brown. But they take their devolved status seriously; they have exercised their powers without first obtaining Mr Brown's permission. As a result, his relations with the Scottish Executive are refrigerated. Although Scotland was the easiest possible opportunity for Gordon Brown to be devolution-minded, he could not. As always, he was authoritarian.

Gordon Brown will be a successful devolutionist on the day that Bill Clinton becomes a Trappist monk. To quote another phrase of Charles Clarke's: Mr Brown is a control freak. Indeed, he is the man who put the troll into control. He would be psychologically incapable of devolving power even to an inner cabinet of close associates.

So when he makes this absurd claim, are we dealing with delusion, or dishonesty? There have been occasions when Mr Brown's commitment to truth has been less unswerving than might be expected from a son of the Manse. During the Bernie Ecclestone affair he admitted lying and was worried, not because he had failed to tell the truth, but because of the possible consequences for his career. There is also the Bank of England question: yesterday, for the thousandth time, Mr Brown made claimed that he had decided to make the Bank independent: evidence of his devolutionist instincts. In reality, Gordon Brown was extremely reluctant to give the Bank its independence. That was Tony Blair's idea. The PM had to overcome the Chancellor's resistance.

It may be that Mr Brown has now convinced himself that he took the decision; he is good at believing what he would like to believe. According to his version, every success in the last nine years is due to him; any failure, to the PM. Anyone outside the Brown inner camp might wonder whether a man with such a fallible grasp of reality is suited to the premiership.

The day Gordon Brown becomes a devolutionist, he will be borne to 10 Downing Street in a chariot pulled by flying pigs, the newness is equally dubious. It is easy to see why Mr Brown wants to make the claim: "Time for a change" is the most powerful slogan in British politics. When the voters start saying it, oppositions rejoice and governments tremble. A lot of voters are now saying it; they are becoming fed up with the current lot, and they are interested in David Cameron. That is Gordon Brown's nightmare (he has the right countenance for nightmares: suffering from them; or inflicting them).

He passionately believes that he is entitled to a long and historic premiership: one that will show Tony Blair how it should be done. But he is terrified that he might be a mere interim: not a Thatcher or a Blair; more a Jim Callaghan, Alec Home or Arthur Balfour.

It is also important to remember the Brown version of the political history of the past 12 years. This starts with his being cheated of his birthright for a mess of pasta, by Tony Blair over dinner at the Granita restaurant. The truth is, of course, that Mr Blair made an error. Instead of fearing a leadership contest, he should have embraced it. He would have won and Mr Brown would have been forced to concede his primacy.

Even if Gordon Brown could be induced to admit that his share price had dipped below Tony Blair's in 1994, he would insist that this had been a trifling blip; there, he has a point. Let us suppose that John Smith had lived to win the 1997 election by a large majority, if not as large as Tony Blair's. The opposition share price would have ceased to be relevant. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown would have been the government's engine room; as Foreign or Home Secretary, Tony Blair would not have been able to mesmerise the public. If John Smith had died in 2000 and not 1994, Gordon Brown would probably have become PM.

There is a further factor which is also interfering with Mr Brown's mental clarity. In his view, this government has never been fully legitimate. For that to happen, he would have to lead it. So he believes that the undeserved accolades of newness which greeted Tony Blair in 1997 must now be renewed, for him. Although he is uneasily aware that not many voters would agree, all this does nothing to improve his judgment.

Forget newness; we are dealing with a man obsessed with the past; who cannot stop gnawing on the bones of frustration or reheating 12-year-old Italian meals. We are also dealing with a man who does not realise that if you have been Chancellor for nine years there is no point in claiming to be new. It would be tragic, were it not such an amusing farce.

There is no reason for Mr Brown to despair. If he has not yet won the premiership, he has certainly not yet lost the next election. There is a strategy that he could adopt which would have the merit of playing to his strengths. Instead of rummaging though Tony's desk in the desperate hope that a tin of stardust has been left behind, Mr Brown should revel in austerity. No more grinning, let alone weeping (his grins would make strong men weep). He should work on the one decent act in his repertoire: the projection of moral force.

The ship of government usually has to plot a course through rough seas, he should say. That is why you need someone like me, down in the bowels, up to my elbows in grunge. I understand how to keep the boilers working; more than that Blair ever did, let alone young Cameron. He would look splendid in a tuxedo at the captain's table; but what use would that be when the weather turns threatening?

This is pure Kipling: McAndew's Hymn. It might not work, but at least Gordon Brown would be able to sing the tune. Instead, however, he seems intent to make claims so preposterous that his very Cabinet colleagues are unable to contain their laughter. If he continues to talk about devolution, he will be exposed as a fraud; if he bangs on about newness, the voters will not believe him: they will simply see the same old Gordon in a more alarming guise. If Gordon Brown persists in trying to turn a rugger forward into a ballet dancer, he will lose the next election.

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