Matthew Norman: Could it be that Brown is worse than Blair?

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The Independent Online

This is a question I neither hoped nor expected ever to ask, let alone so soon, but is Gordon Brown an even more embarrassing prime minister than Tony Blair, leading an even more risible Cabinet of pygmies?

It may seem a touch previous to pose the question less than five months into the administration, when the jury hasn't even retired to consider its verdict. But at the end of another gruesome week for the Government, it sounds to me like the judge is ready to sum up the case, and not in terms favourable to the defence.

If and when future historians analyse how Brown came to join Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Eden among our shortest serving modern PMs, they will doubtless identify inheritance tax as the spark that lit his political pyre. Yet while one can barely overstate the mood-transforming significance of George Osborne's bribe, I suspect the deeper truth lies in Gordon's taxing inheritance.

Like a 1960s aristocrat lumbered with a vast and crumbling stately home and without the money to renovate it, he came to power with a clear choice. He could either get rid of the whole dank, rotting old pile and start again, or stay there in penury living in one crumbling wing. That he chose badly is increasingly obvious.

What he inherited from Tony Blair was a raft of problems, all of them soluble at the time. He was bequeathed a widely loathed foreign policy, if "get up the White House's arse and stay there" can so be dignified; an autocratic centralist culture determined to place the DNA database rampant at the centre of the national coat of arms, and to erode civil liberties wherever these distasteful relics might be found; a deep rooted and widespread image of a government more interested in superficial perception than solid achievement (spin for short); and a ministerial team cowed by a decade of being treated like cattle into performing purely as technocrats of varying degrees of competence.

For a short while, with the country craving the mythical fresh start, the glorious aroma of the newborn's fontanelle, with all the visceral optimism that scent elicits, filled the air. Jacqui Smith, on her first full day as Home Secretary, hit the perfect tone of unhectoring reassurance over the bombs that didn't detonate. David Miliband seemed an appealing, young Foreign Secretary with the intellect and stature to rebalance foreign policy. Even Alistair Darling appeared a refreshing novelty at the Treasury.

Look at them now, the holders of the other three "great offices of state". Behold them, and weep. Ms Smith, already losing a turf war to the rascally Justice minister Jack Straw, reveals herself in interview after pitiful interview as her master's voice, feigning an open mind on extending detention without charge when in fact resolved to enforce Gordon's will for a 58-day period for which no one, she least of all, has yet supplied a single logical argument.

Mr Miliband, when not cutting dates with Saudi princes and umbilical cords, seems more interested in prosecuting his own turf war with junior FO minister Lord Malloch-Brown than developing a coherent strategy for repositioning Britain in the world. He smugly assures us that Gordon would have taken us into Iraq had he been PM at the time, in a tone suggesting this is cause for a new bank holiday.

As for Mr Darling, his subservience to Gordon – who slyly mimics Churchill's wartime dual role as Defence Secretary and PM by effectively retaining the Chancellorship, countermanding Alistair's pronouncements at will – mirrors his great great uncle Kevin Darling's cringing obeisance towards Stephen Fry's General Melchett. Where once these "great offices" were held by the titanic trio of Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Jim Callaghan, they now lie in the hands of the Three Stooges.

Meanwhile, having expressed the desire for a "big tent", Brown seemingly regrets filling it with even more clowns. I think Malloch-Brown's July statement that Britain would cease being joined at the US's hip caught the national mood beautifully, as did Wednesday's statement by Admiral the Lord West, however briefly maintained, that he sees no reason to detain suspects for more than 28 days.

Yesterday in this paper Steve Richards described West's instant recantation, after that thrashing in No 10, as "a red herring". I couldn't disagree more. In fact this droll vignette captured a great deal about Gordon Brown, none of it pretty. It showed him up for a poseur who hired these mavericks not because he wanted to infuse his government with original thinking, but because he wanted us to think he did. And it revealed that on contentious and important issues, he is a fraud who affects to encourage debate about a decision he has already unilaterally taken (Cabinet government my arse); and which he plans to impose on an unwilling Labour party with all the power of the brutish machine politician he is.

At least when Tony Blair took a shocking decision, be it about Iraq or education or scrapping habeas corpus, he went in front of the cameras, or even the Commons, to argue his case with all the deranged passion at his disposal. He was, in this sense, a pretty straight kinda pathological liar. Gordon skulks in Downing Street, manipulating his marionettes, and through them public opinion, while playing the detached democrat. I know which approach I dislike least.

If Lord West was less simple sailor and more canny politician, he'd have held his ground when summoned for his caning, aware what a public relations catastrophe for Brown losing him would have been. "Look, matey," he'd have said (this is how simple sailors talk), "you hired me as a security expert, and as such I am honour-bound to say that I see no security advantage in 58 days. If you don't like it, sack me." It would have strengthened him enormously.

Instead, presumably seduced by proximity to the centre of power, he surrendered as meekly as those ratings seized by the Iranians, albeit with a touch more charm and élan. At a stroke, or at six of the best of them, Gordon reduced a respected professional to the snivelling status of a modern Labour Cabinet minister. Plus ca change.

Promoting to the main job a No.2 who has spent years helping shape a regime that failed wretchedly is seldom a great idea, as we'll be reminded tomorrow should the England football team's interest in Euro 2008 end as expected. If so Steve McClaren will be finished, and we may well hear the odd call for the return of Sven Goran Eriksson. At the current rate of progress, or rather regress, it won't be long before Labour voices are heard pleading vainly for the resurrection, God have mercy, of Mr Tony Blair.