Dominic Lawson: It doesn't need Shakespeare to tell us what Brown's fate is

The PM is well cast as the tragic flawed figure at the heart of 'The Scottish Play'

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Does Gordon Brown ever ask himself: "Was it worth it?" As he surveys the wreckage of his reputation both for economic competence and political integrity, does he ever think: was it for this that I planned and plotted, ever since I was a student? Was it to taste this bitter diet of public hatred and abuse that I forced Blair – the imposter! – from the seat of power?

It would seem very unlikely. Gordon Brown, in common with most men of power is, I imagine, not given to lengthy bouts of introspection or self-analysis. Apart from anything else, it would be too painful. Moreover, unpopular rulers, even in democracies, rarely appreciate the true level of the public's contempt for them; partly because their pride will not allow for it, and partly because they are generally surrounded by the sycophancy which attends power in any organisation. Yes, Prime Minister.

So I imagine it must have come as a shock to Gordon Brown a few days ago, when a packed Anfield Football Stadium merely had to hear the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham utter the words: "Today I represent the Prime Minister..." before erupting into prolonged boos and jeers. Perhaps it was only the solemnity of the occasion – the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster – which prevented the crowd from chanting, "You're going down, you're going down!"; for it does seem certain that New Labour will be relegated from the Political Premier League, and that the Blues, captained by David Cameron, will be promoted.

One should not read too much into a single batch of weekend opinion polls, but last Sunday's were as dreadful for New Labour as anyone can recall. It wasn't so much that the Conservatives had a lead of very nearly 20 points – although that was bad enough – but that support for the governing party was at a mere 26 per cent.

When you add to that the peculiar fact that our national opinion polls have consistently tended to understate the true level of Tory support – New Labour, while winning a series of general elections, on no occasion achieved the margin of victory that the polls had forecast – then you can see why most Labour MPs believe that their party is going to be annihalted at the ballot box, with a number of cabinet ministers losing their seats.

That would not be unprecedented; but what is truly unusual is that this will not have been accompanied by a great policy split in the ruling party. There is, it is true, a toxic level of feuding within New Labour – but it is not about any issue the public can understand. Before the wipe-out of the Conservative Party in the general election of 1997, the Tories had demonstrated that they were completely unable to reconcile their internal division over the issue of the nation's proper relationship with the European Union.

A similar split on this same question had bedevilled Harold Wilson's leadership of the Labour Party a generation earlier, but the foxy Wilson had been rather more skilful than John Major in managing it, by allowing a referendum on that great debate.

In the end, however, that issue did finally lead to a split in the Labour Party; when the anti-EU Bennites appeared to be gaining control, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers walked out to form the Social Democratic Party. That was traumatic for Labour: doubtless it was with such events in mind that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown managed to continue the internal European debate in private: Blair wanted Britain to join the euro, Brown did not. After a debate conducted entirely in camera, Brown prevailed.

Yet that appears to have been the only significant point of strategic disagreement between two men whose supporters, nevertheless, seem to have been at war now for 15 years. True, there were some topics on which Brown appeared to challenge Blair, giving temporary tacit support to rebels on the thorny issue of foundation hospitals: but when Brown took over as Prime Minister it soon dawned on Labour MPs too stupid or too naïve to have spotted it earlier, that the former Chancellor had only pretended to be in sympathy with the "Old" Labour critics of Tony Blair.

If anything, it was Brown, not Blair, who invented – or rather, borrowed from Bill Clinton's "New" Democrats – the cynical "triangulation" approach which underpinned everything that New Labour did. (Nothing more clearly demonstrated this than Brown's hasty decision to remove the 10p tax band for the lowest earners, in order to reduce the standard rate of income tax: this was done cynically to take ground from the Conservatives, with little thought for his own party's core vote).

I recall talking to one minister who had been extremely close to Mr Blair personally and politically, and who as a result had been completely ignored by Brown – sent to Coventry, in fact – throughout the decade of Brown's Chancellorship. Yet the moment Brown took over No 10 Downing Street, this minister told me, he was astounded to be told by the new PM how valuable his work had been, and that he should carry on just as before. In other words, Brown had only pretended to be opposed to the minister's policy on ideological grounds – in fact his objection had been that it was connected and associated with Tony Blair. With Blair out of the way, it suddenly ceased to be objectionable.

Brown recently told the Spectator editor Matthew d'Ancona, with whom he has collaborated on a book about "Britishness", that he despised and rejected the "Namierite" approach to politics. The 18th-century political historian Lewis Namier, you might recall, had argued that political actions can not be sensibly attributed to the battle of great ideas, but merely to the interplay between men of ambition and their camp followers, as they seek best to realise their private pursuit of power and influence.

It's almost comical that Brown should have volunteered this recondite point: for the feud between the Brownites and the Blarites was – is – a veritable exhumation of the 18th-century style of politics, so deftly anatomised by Namier. That great historian would absolutely have understood how a man like Damian McBride fitted in to the political scheme of things in the 10 Downing Street of 2009: under the deceptively grand title of "director of strategy", McBride was actually involved in – how shall we describe it? – a much more personal style of political debate.

It's harder to know what Namier would have made of Brown's weirdly self-contradictory "apology" for what went on: "I take full responsibility for what happens, and that's why the person who was responsible went immediately". Perhaps it's the sign that the great clan chieftain's reign is coming to an end, when he must so brusquely disown his most loyal and ferocious follower – "the person", indeed!

Still, you don't need to know about 18th-century parliamentary politics to understand the forces at work here. Everyone who has studied Shakespeare knows exactly how this plays out, with Gordon Brown well cast as the tragic, flawed figure at the heart of "The Scottish Play", whose removal of the previous king has brought not triumph but retribution.

Indeed, if Gordon Brown is now coming to terms with his political end, perhaps he too will observe that this has been "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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