Matthew Norman: Stop all this jiving, Gordon, and strike

This magnificent, domineering bruiser bottles every crack at the title, even when he's an odds-on favourite
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The Independent Online

According to the founding editor of this newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith, it is an act of madness for a journalist to write an open letter, and he's right. The self-regard required for a grubby hack to elevate himself to the level of any distinguished addressee is a subconscious plea for a date with a jacket that does up from the rear.

According to the founding editor of this newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith, it is an act of madness for a journalist to write an open letter, and he's right. The self-regard required for a grubby hack to elevate himself to the level of any distinguished addressee is a subconscious plea for a date with a jacket that does up from the rear.

It is for this reason, not to mention that this person must hear the same message daily from people marginally better placed to influence him, that I have resisted the temptation to begin thus: "Dear Gordon, in the name of sanity, and for the good of us all, will you please, please, finish him off."

At the end of another frantic week in the eternal psychodrama at the heart of British politics, gauging the relative strength and weakness of the combatants remains an intriguing challenge. Gordon sends his annual coded message from the Brighton dais, Tony responds with a futile attempt to mollify him, Tom Bower publishes a book unveiling the gruesome antipathy between them, Alan Milburn chips in his Geordie hard man twopennorth ("I'm that bastard hard, me," runs the official translation, "I'm gangin' to give that Scottish twat a hidin'"), Cherie looks as if she's ingesting anthrax when pecking Gordon on the cheek... and so it rumbles on and on in the weird, hyper-hormonal lower fifth form common room that is New Labour High Command.

The analogies that come to my mind when seeking to make sense of what passes for high politics in Britain today generally revolve around boxing and mental health, and we'll come to the former in a bit. The latter, meanwhile, brings us to what news of today's minor heart procedure has relegated to the second most telling sign, in a week full of little else, that Mr Blair is weaker than he would have us believe.

For three years, the PM has avoided John Humphrys as you or I might avoid handling plutonium without so much as a pair of Marigolds.

That he felt obliged to face him on Wednesday hinted at panic, but more illuminating was the Humphrys tone. Eschewing the usual semi-coiled scorn, he spoke to the PM softly and with concern, much as a psychiatrist would talk to a new patient when trying to appraise whether he is harmlessly befuddled or such a danger to himself and others as to warrant committal under the Mental Health Act.

What the answer to that is, I'm not sure. You could argue that Mr Blair has already done all the damage he's ever likely to. Yet hearing him tell Humphrys, within a day of that graceless demi-apology to conference, that "the evidence that took us to war was very clear", and then insist that every world leader believed that Iraq was laden with WMD (when Vladimir Putin has stated the opposite), confirmed that the poor chap is, at the very least, severely delusional.

As he well knows, public trust in him has reached such an apex that, if you asked him the time and he said it was noon, one's reflex would be to head upstairs to hunt out the pyjamas. The only person who now gives an iota of credence to anything the First Lord of the Treasury might say on Iraq is Mr Blair himself.

The situation in which this nation finds itself, then, appears to be this. We are led by an apparently deranged man with borderline religious mania and possibly incipient sociopathy, who is heading for a comfortable election victory next year, thanks to the economic management of his rival, the transcendent inadequacy of the Opposition, and the continuing support of Mr Rupert Murdoch.

With the anti-emetics at hand, let us foresee the stomach-churning post-election address. Mr Blair, clad in jeans and jumper, will announce that, by returning him to power, the British people have drawn a line under Iraq, so it's time to move on and let's hear no more about it. This is the nightmare stretching ahead, and only one man can prevent it. Or rather, perhaps, could have done so, because, barring a nature-defying act of courage, for Gordon Brown the chance seems to have faded.

Boxing fans will recall Riddick "Big Daddy" Bowe, the gifted heavyweight who spent much of the 1990s goading Lennox Lewis to get it on; but who, when faced with a mandatory defence against Lewis, literally threw his title belt in the bin and walked away. Gordon Brown has, for too long, been the Big Daddy Bowe of British politics, forever jive talking that he's going to make Blair his bitch; but freezing with self-doubt (never more so than over tuition fees) when the gloves are being laced up and the ring announcer is screeching: "Iiiiiiiiiit's showtime!" No one could label as weak a man who handled the loss of his new born daughter with such sublime dignity. Yet the great paradox about Gordon is that this magnificent, domineering bruiser bottles every crack at the title even when he's a long odds-on favourite.

Doubtless his self-justifications revolve around such tedious received wisdoms as "the assassin never wears the crown", and "look at the Tory implosion after they knifed Mrs Thatcher". Yet Gordon isn't a blatant adventurer like Heseltine or a feeble hostage to fortune like Major, Labour isn't riven by ideological splits as the Tories were, and Blair is hardly deified by his party rank and file as was Thatcher. And this assassin would wear the crown because no one of the mediocrities who might fight him for it could bear its weight.

Look at them, these preening pygmies, look at them and weep with mirth at their ambition. Does Jack Straw's cunning switch to contact lenses transform him from mousy placeman to leader-in-waiting? Can you picture the boastful, gurning Milburn spending more time with the kids above Number 10? Have Blunkett's repugnant attempts to ingratiate himself with the Daily Mail, at the cost of every sacred precept of natural justice he can lay his paws on, endeared him to the centre left? Do Charles Clarke's claret-sodden outbursts hint at a world statesman? Prescott as a caretaker, God help us, after the style of Clive Dunn's Grandad, only twice as aphasic? Permatan Peter Hain? One of the Norland Girls, nannies Jowell and Hewitt? The ribcage repair kit, matron, if you please.

The idea of Labour choosing anyone else is patently ridiculous ... but only so long as Gordon strikes now, before the election win gifts the Blairs time to prepare a more palatable successor. At this late stage in the electoral cycle, maybe this is little more than faux-naïf fantasy. And yet, and yet ... just as Blair defies every law of politics by surviving in office, so the usual electoral verities could still be defied, for above all this is, or should be, an issue of childishly simple morality.

It is immoral in the extreme that a man who lied his way to a war so catastrophic in every regard should continue to lead his party and his country. Gordon Brown, so defined by his love for that party, and nothing if not a deeply moral man for all his lukewarm adherence to collective responsibility on Iraq, must feel that more strongly than anyone. If he fails to act now, immediately, to remove this delusional grotesque from power, he may well spend the next 30 years in agonised reflection over how he came to sacrifice his shot at the title on the altar of his own wildly misguided caution. And he will deserve to do nothing else.