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'

Related Topics

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".

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Workshop Deputy & Production Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A rare and exciting role has arisen within thi...

Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a keen...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this multi-ac...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

£21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: personality is so much more important than policies

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat