John Rentoul: Brown doesn't go with green

It does not matter if Gordon is cautious, but it does matter if he lacks courage
Click to follow

Gordon Brown failed two tests last week. The one that does not matter so much is called the Albert Venison Test. The one that does matter is the Charles Clarke Test - and the Chancellor's failure to make the grade in it casts further doubt on his ability to fight off a resurgent Conservative Party at the next election.

Albert Venison, chairman of the Devon Pensioners Action Forum, is an 81-year-old veteran of the D-Day landings whose latest combat operation was an ambush on the Ironclad Chancellor, when he was about to be interviewed on the Today programme before delivering his Pre-Budget Report.

Venison read out an open letter in which he described Brown as "the worst Chancellor we have had in our lifetime". This was a little unfair, to the extent of being possibly the precise opposite of the truth, because, as Venison conceded, two million pensioners have been lifted by Labour out of the poverty to which the Conservatives had abandoned them. But he had a sharp complaint, which was that pension credits have not helped the next poorest group of old people.

Answering that criticism was not, of course, the test that the BBC's producers had in mind. The real test was of Brown's known weakness, his command of the softer virtues of political leadership.

Brown, diligent student that he is, realised immediately what the examiner was looking for. "Well, let me say first of all that Albert is a war hero - I do thank him for everything he did in the defence of Britain," said the Chancellor. But then he went on: "And I'm glad that he was able to go to Normandy and reflect on the great sacrifices his colleagues made and the great things that he and others have done." It was odd, as Venison's only reference to D-Day had been to his presence in 1944. Then Brown reverted, like a student under exam conditions, to memorised passages of his standard essay, "What I Have Done for Pensioners, With Reference to the £300 Fuel Payment and the Free £130 TV Licence Fee".

It was hardly a virtuoso display of the Clinton-Blair-Cameron brand of emotional intelligence.

I would contend, however, that this failing of Brown's is not necessarily greatly damaging to his stature. The ability to emote fluently is useful in politics, but it is style rather than substance. Style matters more than many of those that disparage Blair or Cameron care to admit, but it is their judgement that makes them such formidable leaders.

And it is on a question of judgement that Brown failed the test that does matter. Charles Clarke, who just six months ago was Brown's most credible rival to succeed Tony Blair, set the test in an article in the London Evening Standard on Monday. The Pre-Budget Report, he wrote, "is not the time for caution or delay". The Chancellor had to "demonstrate categorically why he would be so much better a prime minister than David Cameron", which Clarke thought meant taking on the Conservatives over green issues and security.

Put simply, Brown had two choices. He could disagree with Clarke on the need for bold new green taxes, or he could go for it. Instead, he opted for the very "caution and delay" against which Clarke warned, and sought a middle position between Yes and No. If he does not think green taxes will work, he should have used the Pre-Budget Report to argue that there are better ways of dealing with climate change. If he thinks they will work, he should have put air passenger duty up by more than £5 per flight.

It is arguable - I do not agree with it, but it is not a silly view - that making it harder for British people to fly would have a negligible effect on global carbon emissions. It could be argued that all the Government's efforts should be devoted to trying to secure agreements that bind the US, China and India to join us in cutting emissions. If that is Brown's view, then the £5 airport tax rise looks like a device simply to raise money.

Yet the Chancellor presented it as a green measure. In which case it was too feeble to be serious. I have quoted David Miliband before on the case for Britain going it alone with green taxes. The Secretary of State for the Environment said: "Imagine the extra leverage and influence we would have if we could go into negotiation not just as advocates for change, but exemplars." Well, imagining it is as far as he gets for the moment, because a £5 tax is neither here nor there.

Brown's failure was identified with commendable sharpness by his Conservative shadow, George Osborne, in his reply to the Chancellor in the Commons. "Today's increase in air passenger duty should have replaced other taxes and not added to them." It will be interesting to see whether the Conservatives vote against the £5 rise on these grounds. That might be tricky because Osborne also rightly said government borrowing was too high. Voting against would surely look opportunistic and deflect attention from Brown's missed opportunity.

And what a missed opportunity! If Brown had raised the airport tax by £10, he could have given half the money back in a green tax cut - on something environmentally friendly such as low-energy light bulbs. He did not do it because he does not believe in green taxes, which shift the tax burden from non-polluting activities to polluting ones. Sir Nicholas Stern appears to think that he got it wrong. Sir Nicholas, who was commissioned by Brown to write the definitive assessment of climate change, pointedly resigned from the Treasury on the day of the Pre-Budget Report.

This is not simply a test of Brown on policy, but of his leadership. The nub of Charles Clarke's critique of Brown's character, stripped of the tinge of bitterness, is that the Chancellor is a cautious politician who lacks confidence. It does not matter that Brown is not an accomplished conveyor of empathy. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing to be cautious - Brown is a man of sound and proven judgement in his handling of the economy. But it does matter if he lacks courage.

He may still be able to prove Clarke wrong, but last week was an important chance to do so - and he did not pass the test.