John Rentoul: We all throw a tantrum once in a while

The people are revolting and they don't care about the small print. Jobs are going – and they're going to others

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The mystery is solved. Now we know who was ringing Gordon Brown's mobile phone when the Nokia ringtone interrupted him at Davos on Friday. It was Ground Control.

It is dangerous for prime ministers to be abroad at times of crisis at home. It felt like one of those moments that will define his short premiership. He was talking about "the resumption of lending to the real economy", which was "stage three" of his recovery plan. It was a serious monologue that made perfect sense in the closed context of a televised news conference at an international summit meeting in a Swiss ski resort, but it seemed suddenly irrelevant when it was interrupted by an urgent and unscheduled demand from outside.

Brown is a rational man, but so much about politics is irrational. There is always a gap between the kind of conversation that takes place at Davos and Westminster and the one on the picket lines of Lincolnshire and the streets of Paris. There is a difference between the language used by politicians in news conferences and the placards that protesters print on their computers.

Sometimes there is a crossover between the two discourses. "British jobs for British workers" was one of those moments. As with the abolition of the 10p tax band, Gordon Brown thought he was being clever. He thought that, by putting that label on perfectly respectable policies to get people off benefit and into work, he could appease the anti-immigrant sentiment that was building against the free movement of central Europeans into the British labour market.

Instead he raised expectations, with a phrase that was received and understood in just the way that he must have known it would be, implying that he intended to reserve jobs for British workers when he knew perfectly well that it would be contrary to European law to do so. Did he think that people would hear what he didn't say: "... subject to Articles 39 to 42 of the Treaty of Rome"? It didn't matter so much when the economy was still growing, but it was on a timer, primed to explode when the jobs market started to contract. Talk about hoist by his own petard.

Not only was it disastrous for Brown himself, but it was bad for the twin causes of Europe and the free market. As soon as the poison of BJ4BW enters the rational discourse, people point out that you can't do it under European law and not only does Brown then look powerless, it ratchets up hostility to Europe. It is no use then trying to point out, as Caroline Flint does in her interview today, that British people have been enriched by the free movement of labour in the European Union. That is true, but irrelevant.

She and Gordon Brown are up against a popular mood that can be diverted by rational argument, for a while. But every now and again the popular discontent turns into a rage and says, "Never mind that, we've had enough and you're to blame." We saw it in the fuel protests of September 2000, and again two years later in the countryside spasm that mobilised vast numbers to march on London at the end of the pre-Iraq Blair years. For what? Few in the Westminster green zone can remember now because it didn't make much sense to them. If it did it was because they interpreted it according to their existing assumptions. It was about fox hunting, rural post offices, second homes, and a bit of it was about petrol and diesel prices again, a "rural" grievance with a provisional urban wing. A strong element of it is a fierce anti-capitalism. At one level, everyone understands that liberal free-market economics has made them richer than their ancestors could possibly have imagined; but at another level, many people don't like it, and the poorer and less well educated they are, the less they like it.

We see it in other countries, and shake our head at their incoherence. I recall at the time of the Greek riots a few weeks ago a Greek journalist trying to explain to a BBC radio presenter what they were about. She agreed that it was all unclear; various grievances about government corruption and police brutality had become mixed together. So the violent protests should stop? Oh no, she said, she fully supported the protesters.

Last week it was the turn of the French – just as a French fishing fleet strike triggered the British fuel protest of 2000. There were a million people on the streets of Paris, and Nicolas Sarkozy hadn't joined Barack Obama in the invasion of anywhere.

Some of it is just, as a fellow journalist put it to me, that people want to get out and stretch their legs. Being reasonable all the time can be terribly frustrating, as any child can testify; we all want to shout and stamp our feet from time to time. The usually voiceless, expressing socially -unacceptable sentiments, need to do it most. So suddenly the British National Party gets in on the act; but it is not really about them, it is about the fierce expression of unrespectable opinions.

Now it is happening here and we inhabitants of the green zone – journalists and Prime Minister alike – did not see it coming, although there were news stories here and there that suggested it was about to blow. David Cameron also failed to see it coming and was also in Davos. But his response was different.

He gave a remarkably good speech, using a language that bridged the divide between élite and popular discourses, that accepted that some aspects of modern capitalism were morally repugnant but that, as a means to the better society, regulated markets are superior to any alternative. He seemed to be speaking to the moment; Brown on the other hand was cut off in mid-sentence and told to call home.

The only other politician I know who has been interrupted by his mobile phone while on live television is Boris Johnson, and that was before he became Mayor of London. With Boris, it was easily incorporated into his act. With the Prime Minister, it seemed more like an unwelcome message from the real world. Ask not for whom the phone rings, Gordon. It's for you.

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