Michael Brown: This time, Mr Brown, it's personal

Sometimes it's parties voters have in their sights. At others they aim at the leader
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The Independent Online

If there is a plot, Gordon Brown has certainly lost it. But talk of a cabinet putsch is probably wide of the mark. The likelihood of huddles of Labour backbench MPs successfully wielding the knife against the Prime Minister also seems remote.

It was only a few months ago, during the last leadership spasm, that the veteran backbencher Austin Mitchell told me that Labour MPs were too incompetent to carry out a political execution. Their mood, according to Frank Field, now lurches between desperation or resignation: desperate to hold their seats and willing to contemplate a leadership challenge – or resigned to losing. It is a sign of deep trouble for Mr Brown when his little ray of sunshine, Hazel Blears, writes an article attacking his recent YouTube performance.

But is it always the personality of a party leader that is necessarily the reason for an electoral defeat – or victory? As I write, I am watching a re-run on the BBC Parliament Channel of the 1979 general election night 30 years ago – the election that launched my own 18-year parliamentary career. A cigar-smoking Robin Day has just announced that a recount is to take place in my (now defunct) Brigg and Scunthorpe constituency. As I never saw any television coverage of that day I cannot wait to relive the moment when the BBC declares me elected.

What shines through the coverage, however, is the fact that it was clearly the Labour Party that voters wanted ejected – not necessarily Jim Callaghan. They voted Conservative – not Thatcher. In the North, there was clear evidence of lower swings to the Tories – especially in marginal seats – which many put down to Mrs Thatcher. The other thing that becomes clear is that the more a general election is based on issues, the higher the turnout. When elections are reduced to beauty contests between party leaders, turnouts plummet.

Indeed, the polls showed that Mr Callaghan was ahead of Mrs Thatcher in the personality stakes, and that David Steel out-polled both only for his Liberal Party to suffer a devastating loss of seats. It was very much an election based on the comparison of the two main parties' programmes.

By 1983, however, the modern cult of prime ministerial personality was clearly established. There was overwhelming evidence which showed voters basing their decision to give the Tories a landslide victory on the comparison between the personal characteristics of Mrs Thatcher and Michael Foot. Labour's policies were seen to be utterly irrelevant but Mr Foot's personal performance was key to "the longest suicide note in history". This trend towards personality politics was repeated during the 1987 election when the performances of Neil Kinnock and Margaret Thatcher also dominated the campaign.

In the most recent closely fought election, in 1992, issues rather than personality reasserted themselves. The Tories campaigned mostly on tax while Labour established themselves as the party of public services and the NHS – thanks to an effective campaign by the late Robin Cook, then the Labour health spokesman. Although he probably over-egged his pudding with the infamous "war of Jennifer's ear", he nevertheless focused attention on the political debate over tax cuts and public services.

The Tories ultimately triumphed, with their "Labour's tax bombshell" poster campaign trumping the call for better public services. Although John Major resorted to the soapbox in dozens of market squares – which undoubtedly helped him to lose the "grey man" image – few would suggest that his personality made much contribution to the Tory victory.

This was a return to the days when a party, rather than a Prime Minister, won an election. Of course the contrasting images of Major and Neil Kinnock (the Labour leader working hard to shed his left-wing reputation) were a factor, and there are those who say, unfairly in my view, that it was Kinnock, rather than Labour, that lost that election. But in the end I think the Labour "tax bombshell" was the bigger reason for their defeat.

By 1997, Mr Major was usually consistently ahead of his party – he was not loathed as much as his government. So it was not "get Major out", but a universal desire to "get the Tories out" that was the rallying Labour cry to voters. Meanwhile, personality politics were played to the full by New Labour, with Tory middle-class voters encouraged to focus on Tony Blair rather than his party. Small wonder then that throughout the early successful years of New Labour, Mr Blair's personality and style was invariably more important than his legislative proposals. In 2001, New Labour repeated this cult of personality.

Perhaps it was not until the 2005 election that Mr Blair realised his victory would have to be based on his party rather than himself. It seems hard to imagine, just four short years later, how important Mr Brown was to that campaign. For the first time during Mr Blair's premiership, he needed his party. The damage done by the aftermath of the Iraq war even caused many Labour MPs to dispense with Mr Blair's photo from their election literature. It was Labour's supposed record of economic competence – for which Mr Brown was responsible – that the party cited in an attempt to obliterate the negatives associated with Mr Blair.

So the big question at the next election, likely to take place a year tomorrow, is whether Labour will lose to the Tories or whether Gordon Brown will lose to David Cameron. My belief is that Gordon Brown will lose to the Tories. The voters loathe Mr Brown more than his party – but he will drag it down with him.

If there were to be any suggestion, however, of a change of Labour leader, I suspect that David Cameron and the whole of the Tory Party will be massed outside Downing Street with the oxygen mask and the resuscitation unit. Mr Brown's continuing presence as Prime Minister is absolutely central to a huge Tory win next year.