Last week, I predicted that Gordon Brown would try to undermine the Tories on the environment by unsettling Tory voters who might approve of greenery in principle but do not like the thought of green taxes. I had underestimated the PM. Inviting Lady Thatcher to No 10 on the day that the Tories published their report: what a headline-stealing coup. Mr Brown did not have to distance himself from the environmentalists. He merely deployed her body language to remind traditional Tories of the good old days, when their party was in favour of bigger cars for all and there was none of this green nonsense.
There would have been no problem in inviting the old Lady to No 10: only in persuading her to leave. But what do we suppose happened after her regretful departure from the house that she still often thinks of as home? Did Mr Brown turn to his advisers and say: "What a humbling privilege, to be in the presence of such greatness. We shall not see her like again?" Did he hell. I am informed that it would have needed Alastair Campbell's pen to chronicle the post-Thatcher celebrations, for only he could have done justice to the cynicism and the ruthlessness. The corridors of power resounded to back slapping, glee and mutual congratulations. They were delighted that the old bag – one of the politer terms employed – had fallen for it. She had helped them to stuff Cameron. The task was to keep him stuffed.
There is a plaintive irony here. It must be remembered that, among her innumerable achievements, Margaret Thatcher was the first front-rank politician to highlight the environment. It is sad that, 20 years on, she allowed herself to be exploited in order to suppress an environmental debate. Yet she is not to blame. Lady Thatcher is not what she was. There are good days, and less good ones. She still enjoys small lunch parties with people she knows who encourage her to relive past glories. There are endless tales of Reagan and Gorbachev. But her health no longer sustains the old energy, the relentless edge, the political judgement (though that never recovered from the brutal loss of office in 1990). She is not reliable on current topics, partly because she is no longer really aware of them.
Gordon Brown must know all that. His invitation was not a magnanimous gesture. It was a mean-minded stunt. He was not expressing his admiration for Lady Thatcher, but his contempt. He was behaving like a spivvy antique dealer who oils his way into some old dear's house and dupes her into selling a lifetime's treasures for a fraction of their worth.
We can only hope that the contempt rebounds on him, and there are encouraging signs. Over the past few days, almost all the left-wing commentators have expressed their dismay, and not just at his willingness to give house room to that dreadful woman. They, too, were repelled by the cynicism.
Like the rest of us, they had better get used to it, for there is plenty more where that came from: a crucial continuity with the Blair era. Even before he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair was in the grip of a crucial insight. He believed that in future, no one would ever lose an election by underestimating the British voter's intelligence. He came to power with one of the thinnest electoral platforms in Opposition history: one reason why he was so bad at using power. He was an outstanding rhetorician, especially when unconstrained by the truth. But for a premiership of any duration so devoid of intellectual content, we would have to go back to Lord North.
Everyone had expected un-flash Gordon to be different. After all, he has the port and carriage of an intellectual; he sounds like an intellectual. Moreover, he was responsible for whatever intellectual content there was in the policies of the Blair era. We know that because he has told us so. But ask yourself one question. Mr Brown has been PM for quite a few weeks now. Where is the intellectual content? Where, indeed, is any sort of content? Admittedly, he has abandoned the proposal on casinos, which he had earlier supported. Can anyone think of anything else?
We have been informed that Honest Gord will be a listening Prime Minister. That aroused amusement among his Cabinet colleagues. We should share their scepticism. Is he going to listen to those who argue that it is unfair for Scottish MPs to vote on purely English matters? Then there is Europe. We have been told what Mr Brown thinks about the pressure for a referendum on the European constitution. He thinks that it will just go away.
Some Labour MPs want one? Wait until they return to Westminster and an interview with the Whips. Gordon Brown will clunk a bill through Parliament on the assumption that ultimately, the voters will not care. On this occasion, he may have underestimated the electorate's attention span, but that is not the immediate issue. It is impossible to claim to listen and to talk vaguely about citizens' juries – what bizarre populist rubbish – if you ignore anything that you do not wish to hear. Tony Blair found it hard to induce Gordon Brown to listen to him. What chance has the average voter?
In 10 Downing Street today, they will pay some attention to the banking crisis. As always, there will be half an eye on the latest news from Iraq and Afghanistan. Other matters might receive a hearing. But we know what their main preoccupation will be. While preparing for the Labour Conference, they will also be thinking hard about how to disrupt the Tory one. They will be trying to devise some Thatcher-type trap to spring just when David Cameron gets up to speak.
Mr Brown should enjoy all this while he can. The summer has been all about politics, and he is the Platonic ideal of the political obsessive. Anyone who thought that the age of spinning was over when Tony Blair left office now knows better. There was a famous Dean of Durham, Cyril Alington, from a great cricketing family. He could never process down the nave of his Cathedral without wondering whether it would take spin. Gordon Brown is such a compulsive spinner that he makes the Dean look like an amateur.
But the political year will recommence, along with the academic one. Parliament will be back and politics will sometimes have to yield to the pressure of events. Unless confidence is quickly restored, the banking problems will reduce economic growth and with it, government revenue, at a time when the Treasury is already spending far too much. The problems in health and education have not been solved merely because the new Prime Minister has ignored them for three months. Before the summer, Gordon Brown would often seem leaden and unresponsive in dealing with the questions of the day. There is no reason to believe that his technique has improved. I suspect that the political atmosphere will change significantly between now and Christmas.Reuse content