John Rentoul: Can Brown turn it around? Probably not

Day 34 on the Gordonian calendar, and the gap between his world and ours shows no sign of shrinking, however you triangulate it
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The Independent Online

Some people find languages difficult. English, for example. Take Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, normally rather fluent in the language people speak in real life. In an interview to be shown on GMTV this morning, he says: "By day 330 this year we will be introducing compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals." By day 330? What kind of Gordonian calendar is this? Is it from the planning grid of the Home Office "fit for purpose" Reconstruction Task Force? Or is it a secret counting system used in the Treasury, now that Byrne has become a hybrid minister based there as well as at the Home Office?

On this basis, it is day 34 now, and already the answer to the big question that was being asked at the beginning of the year has become clearer. Over the Christmas break, the question being asked at Westminster was, "Can Gordon Brown recover?" With every passing day, the answer seems more likely to be no.

On day 24, for example, a significant dog did not bark. When Peter Hain resigned, something did not happen in the reshuffle. Brown did not bring Charles Clarke back into the Government. Brown seemed to think that he would show himself to be inclusive by promoting James Purnell and Andy Burnham ("Blairites") as well as Yvette Cooper and Tom Watson ("Brownites"). And it is true that some of Tony Blair's closest former associates were impressed.

Of course, Clarke has no divine right to return to the front bench. But Brown's failure to recall him had two consequences. One is that the dog bit him. Clarke's article for Progress magazine last week was cutting: "By now, people are entitled to expect Labour to know what works, and not to need short-term reviews and pilots." Indeed, it is surprising that, after pressing so hard and so long for the top job, Brown seems to have so little idea of what he wants to do with it. Clarke predicted that the next election will be in May 2010 – in other words, that Brown will not be confident enough to go to the country next year.

The second consequence for Brown is the absence of a big story. Clarke's return might have connoted weakness on Brown's part, as well as a remarkable generosity of spirit, but it would have been noticed. "He needs a lot of drama, a lot of theatre," said one Blairite. This MP, who is resigned to not getting the call to join the Government of all the talents, even uses triangulation – once a Clinton-Blair buzz word – as an insult against Brown: "He needs to do more than triangulate and calibrate without ever really defining himself."

It is unlikely now that Clarke, too, will receive the call to serve. When Brown became Prime Minister, he made a series of half-offers of unsuitable jobs that either failed to materialise or that Clarke rejected. His first offer, I am told, was to put Clarke in charge of reconstructing the port of Basra in Iraq, which had the advantage, from Brown's point of view, of being a long way away and rather dangerous.

Bringing Clarke back would have been a jolt to the system. Not so much because the former home secretary is a Blairite. "He's no Blairite, he's a Kinnockite," a fellow moderniser told me. Indeed, in his Progress article, Clarke said that neither Blair "nor his policy prescriptions have any future significance", which was a little sweeping.

No, Clarke is important simply because he is a substantial figure who has been a critic of Brown's governing style. Bringing him back would have been a dramatic way for Brown to show that he is confident enough to engage in debate. And that unwillingness to make the argument, against those in his own party, against the opposition, against critics in the media, is what will do for Brown.

David Cameron's line at Prime Minister's Questions last week was telling: "He cannot answer the question and cannot make a decision." The indecisiveness charge is half true and half not. Sometimes Brown does the sensible thing of refusing to be rushed into a decision.

The more important charge is that he never seems to answer the question.

This goes beyond the common complaint that politicians avoid straight answers. The Conservative leader was so pleased with himself that he made a video for his Webcameron website, which showed him preparing for Questions. It also showed him afterwards, when Brown had conspicuously failed to say whether the police "stop and search" form would be abolished: "My questions were not difficult to predict," Cameron crowed.

Brown's real weakness is that he has not, since he became Prime Minister, engaged in the drama of a dialogue in his own defence. The importance of the criticism of him from Progress is not just that he ought to be more Blairite in substance, but that he ought to be more Blairite in style. Progress, as one sympathetic MP admitted to me, is hardly more of an ideological force in Labour politics than the Progressive Policy Forum, the front organisation used as a conduit for donations to Peter Hain's deputy leadership campaign.

But its statement urging Brown to adopt a post-Blair rather than an anti-Blair politics exposed the weakness of Brown's attempt to sell himself as the "change". If he was a "change" from Blair, what had he changed to? Brown himself made a telling mess of answering that question on the BBC's Politics Show last weekend. "The changes that we are making are to recognise that the world has changed over the last 10 years. We didn't have the environmental problems we have now. We didn't have the global economic restructuring; we have got it now. We didn't have the sense of rising aspiration." In each case: oh yes we did.

If Brown is "the change", he has not changed to something more left wing, as another howl of anguish from Polly Toynbee, keeper of the social-democratic flame, confirmed last week. This time she said that Brown's "besetting sin" was "cowardice" in not taking on the rich, and that, "unlike Blair, Brown doesn't lust after lucre; he neither glamorises, needed, nor is in awe of wealth – but he is afraid of it.

Both Toynbee and Progress offer Brown heaven-sent opportunities to define himself, to engage in argument and to dramatise his positions. Against Toynbee he could restate the case against a "tax the rich" politics, which is a message that could recover some ground among the middle classes who think he disapproves of them. Against Progress, he could gain ground by disagreeing with its notion that Britain is suffused with a "deep social pessimism".

Of course, Blair was adept at characterising the position of his opponents in such a way as to make it easy for him to demolish their supposed arguments. But it was at least a device that recognised differences of view and sought to make the case for the course he had chosen.

Brown is not that kind of leader, and I think that means that, by the time we get to Liam Byrne's day 330 this year, Brown will be sunk and self-evidently so. Then things will start to get really interesting.