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

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