John Rentoul: Will the real Mr Brown please sit down?

His dithering over the election and Lisbon shows that the Prime Minister is far better off when he is acting out of character
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The Independent Online

There is one way in which Gordon Brown can recover the ground he has lost since the bursting of his summer bubble. He must go against all the advice he has received so far. If his Government is to regain the sunlit uplands, the one thing that the Prime Minister must absolutely avoid is "being himself".

His advisers mean well. They want him to relax and show a little of the quick wit with which he surprises people in private. They want him to show the outward signs of the inner confidence that has sustained him during his 13-year wait for the leadership. But they are misguided. Being himself is the last thing Brown needs to do.

Everything that has gone right for Brown since he became Prime Minister has been because he has behaved out of character. Everything that has gone wrong has been the result of his reverting to type.

Take the most recent drama that Brown managed to turn into a crisis: his half-attendance at the Lisbon Treaty signing and the next day's Brussels summit. The real Gordon Brown cannot make up his mind, loathes European hoopla and is a pragmatic pro-European. It was this Brown that was in charge last week, that managed to offend the anti-European press, the pro-European press and all the other EU leaders. The antis would have stuck it to him anyway, although his show of weakness may have brought out the bully in The Sun ("We shall never surrender, even if you have, Mr Brown") and the Daily Express ("Mr Bean signs away our freedom").

It is the reaction of the pro-Europeans that should worry him. "Brown's absence was, frankly, a national embarrassment," concluded my dispassionate colleague, Andrew Grice, the political editor of The Independent. John Kampfner, the editor of the supposedly Brownite New Statesman, was cutting: "If he disagrees with the EU Reform Treaty, he should have withdrawn Britain from it. If he believes in it, he should have signed with pride and alacrity. Courtesy and courage work wonders."

I understand the frustration of Michael Ellam, the Prime Minister's civil-servant spokesman, who said that journalists' questions about the Lisbon ceremony were "a lot of fuss about nothing". It made no difference when, or even whether, Brown signed the document. Nor did his body language, turning his back on the cameras after signing, alter the legal meaning of the text.

But then Ellam demanded: "To what extent does this matter to anyone out there in the real world?" Which rather invites the response that, if this country is seen as a semi-detached, reluctant member of the European Union, its influence in the real world is likely to wane. Nor is this simply to do with perception. Brown returned to London on Thursday night, and travelled to Brussels on Friday morning. The other EU leaders flew in the same plane direct from Lisbon to Brussels, which meant that Brown missed the chance for informal meetings in which real EU business is often done.

Brown's indecision first he wasn't going to Lisbon, then he was fits into a pattern. The other episode that damaged his reputation was the dithering over an election. As we look back over Brown's tribulations over the past 10 weeks, most of them were not his fault: Northern Rock, the lost discs, illegal immigrants cleared to work as security guards. But the Lisbon hokey-cokey and the loss of nerve over the election were down to him. They happened because he behaved in the way that those with negative experiences of working with him feared and expected.

Contrast those disasters with Brown's successes. When he confounded the expectations of his character and brought Conservatives up to and including Baroness Thatcher into his Downing Street parlour. When he kept able Blairite ministers John Hutton and Lord Adonis in his Government and stepped up the academies programme in a way that made it (slightly) more palatable to its critics. When he turned out to be pleasantly matter-of-fact about matters as diverse as terrorism and supercasinos subjects on which he had few known opinions.

Yet the successes have been few and mostly they have been just as much presentational as the failures. All the evidence suggests that the openness of Brown's first few weeks as Prime Minister were a token effort to do what he knew he had to do, but which he found impossible to keep up. One anonymous cabinet minister's comment has been widely retold by MPs who want Brown to succeed but fear the worst: "It's just like the invasion of Iraq: they had no plan for what would happen after the old regime was toppled."

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, must regret his decision not to try at least to stand against Brown in the summer. He denied it when Adam Boulton interviewed him on Sky News last weekend, but said: "Gordon Brown is... today the right man for 2007, 2008 and 2009." What happens the next year, the last date for an election, was left tantalisingly unsaid.

Meanwhile, the dripping tap of Westminster anecdote is wearing a hole in the stone. Sue Cameron, purveyor of Whitehall whispers for the Financial Times, recently reported that Brown had upset the Garden Room Girls the secretaries at No 10 on whom every prime minister must depend absolutely. I have heard from an independent source that Brown ordered one out of her chair and typed her document himself.

Last week's row over police pay could have happened under any prime minister, but I suspect that Thatcher, Major and Blair would have backed off before now. I am all for reforming police working practices, but it simply is not worth alienating them altogether for 30m.

Slow readers like me who have only just got through the last two years of Blair's time in office in Anthony Seldon's Blair Unbound come across the real Gordon Brown with a jolt of recognition. He was secretive, rude and indecisive. According to Seldon's sources, Treasury officials were instructed not to co-operate with No 10 in negotiations over the EU budget at the end of 2005. At the time, it was possible to say that that these were tactics reprehensible enough, but merely tactics in the civil war against Blair. Now, though, it is becoming increasingly obvious that they were not. They are the authentic Brown.

The more we see of that Brown, the worse this Government's troubles will be. The best chance of regaining a sense of purpose is that Labour gets the fake Brown of the summer back. Labour needs a Brown who pretends to believe in parent power, patient power and police reform to deliver better public services. It needs a Brown who pretends to be green to defend his middle-class flank. And it needs a Brown who pretends he really, really likes cutting deals with Finns and Belgians, with no translators present, to maintain Britain's influence abroad.

This means that on all the issues that will decide whether or not the Brown Government can get itself out of its troubles, everything depends on the Prime Minister not being himself.

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