Matthew Norman: Get back to the Treasury, Gordon

Imagine the impact if the PM quit in order to return to the job he does best. What’s he got to lose?
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The Independent Online

Two Jewish fellas in front of a firing squad. "Schweinhunde!" screams the Gestapo officer. "Have you any last request before you are shot?" "Yes," says Abe, "Can we stand behind the wall?" "No, you cannot stand behind ze vall. Stand still." "In that case, you filthy Nazi bastard," says Abe, "fuck you and Adolf Hitler." Hymie glances nervously at his friend. "Don't cause trouble," he says.

This is now the official Labour Party position on Gordon Brown. Fingers trembling over triggers, the electoral firing squad awaits the order to shoot Labour into opposition for a decade, and the likes of Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward go on Newsnight begging colleagues not to cause trouble.

Shaun's private thoughts may differ, of course, because ministers who parade their loyalty in public can struggle to sustain it in private. It's only a few weeks since David Cairns cited Gordon as the best and only person to steer us through these choppiest of fiscal waters... the very argument Shaun deployed, with pleasing symmetricy, in response to Mr Cairns's resigninging in protest at Gordon's unfitness for purpose.

But assuming he did mean it – and he put the case with real passion and conviction – the problem with "only Gordon knows enough about economics to save us" as an argument for keeping him as PM is that's a Catch 22. If the public doesn't buy it, reckoning that he exacerbated this crisis by encouraging reckless borrowing, he is a bigger liability than ever and must leave No 10. And if the public does buy it, and concludes that with his unique financial acumen he is the only man for the job, the job for which he is the only man isn't Prime Minister but Chancellor. In which case, he must leave No 10.

And so, on the huge assumption that there is residual faith in his economic genius, here's a suggested Third Way out of the rancid pickle in which Labour finds itself stickily marooned – and if it reads more like fairytale than sober analysis, well, we can all use a bit of escapist fantasy when the reality is this mortifying. So then, rather than sacking him or backing him, his colleaguese should send Gordon back to the Treaury. Better still, he should have the courage (ha ha ha) to do it himself, because it might be his and Labour's only shot at salvation.

Imagine the impact if he went on telly tonight, and said something on these lines. "As you know, we face the most turbulent economic conditions for generations, and although its genesis lies within the American banking and mortgage systems, and every developed country on earth is affected, I'm not here to make excuses or pass the buck. The situation is too grave for that, and all that matters now is how we deal with it, so I won't insult your intelligence with blithe reassurances. As you know from this week's development on Wall Street, and with the run on HBOS shares over here, the situation is dire, and may become worse, and it now seems certain that we are heading for recession.

"This is why my final decision as Prime Minister is to appoint myself Chancellor of the Exchequer and return to the job in which you trusted me for so long. Perhaps you've noticed that my tenure as Prime Minister hasn't been an unmitigated triumph, and it's plain to me that what talents I have lie primarily in managing the economy from day to day. I am therefore resigning as Prime Minister and taking over as Chancellor with immediate effect. I pledge to work tirelessly under whomever is chosen as my replacement, and to use myexperience to bring about sustainable recovery as quickly as possible. God bless you all."

What a masterstroke of escapology that might prove. Who wouldn't swoon at the self-deprecation and humility of a proud man finally accepting his limitations? The unnerving awkwardness that is such a fatal flaw in his leadership would seem an asset once again. Labour would be free to pick someone, preferably Alan Johnson if he can overcome that misplaced intellectual inferiority complex, fitted for the warm, avuncular, empathic role required in uncertain times. It would draw a sharp contrast between the self-sacrificial gravitas of a man giving up the prize he fought so long and hard to win, and what would more easily be presented as the glib vacuity of David Cameron.

With Gordon back doing what many, mistakenly or otherwise, believe he does best, the temptation to cling on to nurse for fear of something worse would be stronger. At the very least, it would be an act of thrilling of political melodrama to dispel, if only temporarily, the sense of inevitability regarding a Tory landslide. It would be unprecedented (Alec Douglas Home became Foreign Secretary after being PM, of course, but he lost a general election in between), no serving Prime Minister ever having demoted himself on the grounds that the severity of a crisis overwhelmed personal ambition.

I know it sounds unlikely at best and dementedly outlandish at worst, and perhaps his reputation is so denuded that the public would no longer tolerate him in any Westminster position more front line than cleaning parliamentary loos. But what in the name of sanity does Gordon have to lose when the only alternatives are a Murder On The Orient Express-style assassination (Everyonedunnit) or obliteration at the hands of an electorate which loathes him as PM as much as it revered him as Chancellor?

This is not, as even his more relentless critics generally agree, a shallow, selfish, bad or foolish man. This is a decent man of undeniable gifts atrophying daily in a role to which he is luminescently unsuited, and it is not a pleasant thing to watch. One way or another it must end soon, because the vehicle (a hearse) is now driven by the kind of internal dynamic that cannot be stopped, let alone reversed. The rifles are cocked, fingers tremble over triggers, and the only chance of escape, however remote, is a mad dash for it. With apologies to Hymie Woodward, this is the very last moment to stand against the wall whispering, "Why cause trouble?"

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