John Rentoul: Brown is too late for everything

This inbuilt caution served him well on the road to No 10 but is disastrous as PM

Share
Related Topics

Whatever Gordon Brown does, it is always too late. He was too late to express half a view on the release of the Lockerbie bomber. If he had said that he was "repulsed" by the scenes of celebration in Tripoli that greeted the man convicted of the worst terrorist murder in Britain on the day, when the sentiment was still fresh, it might have seemed genuine.

We might even have overlooked his rather obvious dodging of questions about his opinion of the prisoner's release itself. It was mostly because five days passed between the flight to Tripoli last week, and Brown's appearance in No 10 to shake hands with the Israeli prime minister on Tuesday that his response, when it came, seemed so inadequate.

I am not allowed by a self-denying ordinance to mention his predecessor, and especially not for comparative purposes, but can anyone imagine that a different prime minister would have said nothing on such an issue for five hours, let alone five days?

This has nothing to do with devolution. Of course, the decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was the responsibility of the Scottish Justice Secretary. But Gordon Brown was not responsible for Ted Kennedy's death, yet he had an opinion on that yesterday. He was not responsible for England winning the Ashes (except in the imagination of Guido Fawkes, the professional Brown-hater, who says England won only because "Jonah" Brown was on holiday), yet he had an opinion on that, too.

This has everything to do with a pattern of behaviour, an inbuilt caution that served Brown well enough on the road to No 10, but which is disastrous in anyone actually holding the top job. Coming to a view too late has been Brown's way of working for as long as anyone can remember. His standard operating procedure as Chancellor was to hold back from expressing a view and then suddenly hit his Cabinet colleagues with a fully worked-out position backed up with Treasury papers at the last minute, so that they had little time to respond. Ask Alan Milburn. Or Charles Clarke. Or that bloke whose name shall not be mentioned.

Take the Iraq war. I vividly remember a Newsnight interview at the end of September 2002 when Brown conspicuously ducked a series of questions about his view of the possibility of military action. It was not until six days before the critical Commons vote in March 2003 that he went on Newsnight again – hardly a retail media outlet – to announce his support for it. He expressed himself in forceful and unconditional terms, but it was too late to mean anything. Most of the Labour Party believed, as he wanted them to believe, that he was not entirely gung-ho about it. As I say, that particular procrastination served him well enough to secure the succession unopposed.

But it is no way to lead a nation.

Hence my somewhat bounded joy at the sinner that repenteth on the issue of public spending cuts. On Tuesday this week, the reliable Andrew Grice reported on the front page of this newspaper that Brown intends to produce a list, before the election, of projects to be scrapped or delayed to help close the deficit in the public finances. It is merely a statement of the blindingly obvious that whoever forms the next government, spending will have to be cut and taxes will have to rise, so our gratitude that Brown is preparing to go into the election accepting at least half of that statement should be limited.

Once again, it is too late. But it is nevertheless a significant moment for a Prime Minister who has for months refused to admit that he would, if re-elected, cut spending. Who has, for all of this year, asserted at the despatch box that the laws of arithmetic do not apply to him.

It is significant not just because it marks Brown's capitulation to reality but because it is his admission that he has been defeated by the majority of his Cabinet. Above all, it is a victory for Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, who was reported in the Mail on Sunday as having confided in a "veteran Labour MP and critic of Mr Brown" that "I am trying to talk sense into that man".

According to the Mail on Sunday, Darling went on: "He just doesn't get it – going on about 'Tory cuts' is not going to make an impact on the electorate. We have to frame the debate in terms of our cuts being better than their cuts. The voters aren't stupid – they know how bad the economic situation is."

I have no idea if Darling actually said those words, although I think it is highly likely that he said something like them. What makes the report so damaging to Brown is that it would be demeaning to the Chancellor to suggest that he had failed to express those sentiments in private, and possibly in even stronger terms.

But it is already far, far too late. Even if Brown could bring himself to utter the sentence, "Labour will have to cut public spending", no one could be sure what he meant.

Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP who writes for another newspaper, suggested yesterday that Brown's long absence from the public stage – apart from that curious interruption to his voluntary work in Scotland for a routine grip 'n' grin with Benjamin Netanyahu and the occasional issue of written statements – meant that he had already "gone". He wrote: "I have the strongest of impressions that Mr Brown has already resigned."

Well, he hasn't, of course, although it is just possible that, over this summer, he has taken a decision to step down early in the new year. All I can say, on behalf of the Alan Johnson For PM campaign, is that we will tolerate no complacency. We cannot rely on him to go of his own volition. He will have to be pushed out, either by his own party, if it has the wit and the will to minimise the damage it will suffer at the election, or by the voters.

The one thing that is certain is that, for Gordon Brown, it is too late.

The author is Chief Political Commentator for The Independent on Sunday

www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there