Matthew Norman: Brown is on the ropes. He needs to gamble

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The Independent Online

An anniversary is approaching that might, if he had the wit to appreciate the parallels, be an inspiration to Gordon Brown. It was on Sunday, 16 November 1997 that Tony Blair summoned John Humphrys to Chequers for the interview that saved him from neo-natal prime ministerial death. Mr Blair had been in office for barely longer than Mr Brown has today, and although his trouble (Bernie Ecclestone's £1m) looked superficially different, the root problem was the same one Gordon faces now. He'd been rumbled for a fake.

He, like Gordon, had come to power on a wave of goodwill from a country which liked the things he said about a new consensual politics (ha ha ha), humility ("We are the servants now"), getting on with the job, and all the other vacuous drivel of the moment. People – especially woman – liked and trusted him... and within a few months the cunningly wrought façade was destroyed, just as Gordon's has been ruined by the confluence of the non-election fiasco and that gut-wrenchingly cynical jaunt to Iraq.

"They're going to get me over this," said Mr Blair, of the media, to his friends, but it was the medium of television that offered him salvation. Facing the most ferocious and insightful interviewer of his generation, Mr Blair did what he always did best. He used that ungodly, misplaced faith in his own virtue, and reassured an audience still minded to indulge him that he was a pretty straight kinda guy.

The line would later haunt him in a teasing, ironic way, but it worked at the time. He scraped through the crisis and lived to scrape through many more.

Gordon urgently needs a big, set-piece interview of his own, because he is in quicksand every bit as deep and gooey as that which nearly drowned Tony Blair 10 years ago. Indeed, judging from the tortured look on his face at Wednesday's PMQs (there was one grimace of such raw excruciation that you could have wept for him), it may be even more so. He certainly faces a more dangerous opponent.

If modern politics is a sport, as Adrian Hamilton noted in the Independent yesterday, the one it most resembles is boxing, which also affects to be an art and a science but is really a form of legalised brutality. In the autumn of 1997, Mr Blair faced William Hague, a skilful, elegant flyweight who threw plenty of stinging jabs, but lacked the power to lift him off his feet.

David Cameron, moving up through the weight divisions at remarkable speed, has gone from featherweight to cruiserweight in a fortnight, and the haymakers he threw on Wednesday scrambled Gordon badly, drawing from him the classic false smile of the wounded fighter which is intended to say " you can't hurt me" but sends out the opposite message.

Here I am strongly reminded, to continue this tiresome boxing theme, of Herol "Bomber" Graham. Very much the Gordon of his middleweight era, Graham's hyper-cautious style made him very hard to hit, and not much easier to watch. Almost no one laid a glove on him as he rose slowly but steadily in the rankings, until in 1990 he fought Julian "The Hawk" Jackson for the world title.

For the first three rounds, Graham destroyed Jackson, the Cameron of the piece, cutting him so badly that the fight was almost stopped. Noting the ref giving Jackson one final round to save himself, Graham was so intoxicated by the scent of victory that he changed tactics completely. For the first time in his long career, he abandoned his innate cageyness and went after the quick knockout ... and the second he dropped his guard, he walked onto a left hook of such exquisite and perfectly timed savagery that he didn't come round for five minutes. He was never the same fighter, needless to say, again.

Thus far, Bottler Brown has followed the Bomber Graham template – years of risk-avoidance jeopardised by a moment of recklessness – almost to the letter. I say almost because it isn't certain yet that Gordon's lights have been put out. My gut instinct, for what infinitesimally little that's worth, is that he may be too damaged by the self-inflicted wounds of recent days to become a dominant force again; that the loss of his moral and political authority is so drastic, and the shift in the national mood so dramatic, that recovering in the 18-24 months left before an election even he cannot avoid will be exceedingly difficult with a weakening economy and a housing market nearing stasis.

Yet even more threatening to his prospects is his refusal to confront the criticism. Denying that he called off the election through fear of defeat was another shocking misjudgment. It made him look not only shifty but hubristic, and we know where that leads if left unchecked. To have a chance of dodging Nemesis, Gordon must accept the truth of Joe Louis' old verity, because however fast he runs from accusations of cowardice and phoneyness, he cannot hide. His only hope is to face them head on.

If he followed the Blair paradigm and summoned Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman, he could hardly tell us he's a pretty straight kinda guy. But he could tell us that he is a pretty remorseful kinda guy who made a horrendous cock up he deeply regrets; that while he won't apologise for thinking hard about the timing of an election, because all PMs must, he does apologise for getting so distracted by the prospect of landing the knock out that he dropped his guard; that he appreciates how much damage it has done him, but wants the chance to rebuild his reputation for competence; that everyone, even political leaders, makes bad mistakes, and that the crucial thing is how well one learns from them.

If he properly embraced the masochism strategy and threw himself on the public's mercy he may just be in time to save himself. We are all suckers for a touching plea for clemency. The sight of the mighty begging forgiveness, as with Bill Clinton's "Ahh have sinned" post-Lewinsky prayer breakfast, empowers us. It makes us feel like Roman Emperors watching from on high in the Colosseum, and so long as the sincerity is moderately well faked we usually raise the thumb.

A trial by ordeal on national television might well backfire. A gruesome autumnal encounter with Brian Walden in the wake of Nigel Lawson's resignation further weakened an ailing Mrs Thatcher. If Gordon performed poorly, it could deepen the impression that he has "loser" engraved on his heart. It would be a desperate measure, and be seen as such.

But these really are desperate times for a Prime Minister known to Mr Cameron as a calculator. If ever a fast fading political force needed to take a calculated gamble, that man is Gordon Brown and the time is now.

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