Review of the Year 2009: Brown vs Cameron

Locked in deadly combat on Westminster's high wire

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In their very different ways Gordon Brown and David Cameron walked a high wire over the past year, balancing precariously. Brown almost tripped several times, and during his bleak mid-summer he was the victim of a malevolent shove.

The Prime Minister faced a second attempt to depose him as Prime Minister when Labour was slaughtered in the European elections. Within seconds of the polling stations closing at 10pm on that warm June night, James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet and a new rebel, Barry Sheerman, gave an interview declaring that Brown should go.

In the end he saw off the attempted insurrection, assisted by the indispensable Peter Mandelson who persuaded other restless Cabinet ministers not to follow Purnell's insurrectionary path. Mandelson to Brown's rescue: here was political choreography that no one would have predicted at the height of their 14-year feud. Brown was assisted, too, by the weakness of the rebels, relatively small in number and tactically naive. But for him it was a sweaty, energy-draining few days in a year of testing events.

Whatever his epic flaws, even Brown's most ferocious enemies cannot deny his extraordinary resilience in the face of relentless adversity. This was the year in which a deep recession took its grip on the economy and the scandal of the MPs' expenses fuelled a public mood that was already anti-politics. Brown not only faced an insurrection from MPs and disillusioned ministers. Each day he awoke at five in the morning to read the newspapers, which meant that by around half past five he already had cause to be depressed. The Labour-supporting Guardian in particular turned against him. Columnists who had been cheer-leaders when Brown was a fashionable figure called on him to go. The newspaper ran a long editorial demanding his resignation. Other newspapers were almost as vitriolic, with some raising questions about his physical and mental health. In September, in his pre-conference interview with Brown, Andrew Marr raised internet rumours that Brown was taking heavy anti- depressants. Brown's awkward, complex, unpredictable, introverted personality has been an important factor in British politics since 1992. This year, it became an overwhelming one, as he became the subject of ruthless scrutiny from within the Cabinet and beyond.

Some of it was deserved. For much of the year his public performances were poor, and in some cases worse than that. For such a calculated politician, Brown is physically transparent. He cannot disguise how he is feeling. One of his stronger emotions is high-level irritation, bordering on uncontrollable anger. He finds some colleagues and quite a lot of journalists annoying. With a comic darkness Brown showed his anger in several media interviews this year, not least during the week of the party conference where he was filmed ripping off the microphone at the end of one exchange. These were meant to be prime ministerial charm-offensives.

At least as serious, the words he delivered were often opaque and repetitively formulaic. In the late spring and early summer, as some Labour MPs stirred against him, Brown declared woodenly: "I'm getting on with the job". This was not the most inspiring of slogans as questions about his leadership raged.

When a leader becomes vulnerable, he or she can often make matters worse by acting out of desperation. As he clung to his job in the summer, Brown outlined his latest dividing line with the Conservatives, or, to be more precise, the latest version of his favourite divide: "Labour's investment versus Tory cuts". The projection came as something of a shock to the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who wanted to show how the government planned to repay debt by cutting expenditure. Darling became much more assertive in the second half of the year, when he realised that Brown had planned to replace him with his closest confidant, Ed Balls. In the end Brown was not strong enough politically to make the move, and Darling went from being the most precarious Chancellor since Norman Lamont to the safest of modern times.

Darling felt a deep sense of personal betrayal, but he should not have done. Brown was always going to try to appoint Balls as his Chancellor. The desire was not so much a reflection of Brown's doubts about Darling – although he had some – but more a testament to his abiding admiration for Balls. By the early autumn Brown looked doomed, not least when his party-conference speech failed to make much impact. His address contained so many policies it sounded at times like one of his old budgets. Voters had forgotten about the policies within days – if they ever knew about them.

While Brown was in the doldrums Cameron was on something of a high, even if his elevation to Britain's Prime Minister-in-waiting had more to do with Labour's unpopularity than the Conservatives' appeal. Cameron and his Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, had taken their key decision in the autumn of 2008 when they opposed a fiscal stimulus and called for immediate spending cuts. Their subsequent claim that they would cut deeper and more quickly than Labour presented them with a dilemma during this year, one which is still not fully resolved. Should they give examples of what they would cut? Osborne partially answered the question during his speech at the Conservatives' conference in the autumn when he outlined some precise cuts. Cameron followed with his leader's speech that stood out for its hostility to the state, blaming "big government" for virtually everything, including the financial crisis. It was the equivalent of hearing a heavily produced rock star playing a gig "unplugged". This was Cameron without the orchestration and showed that in some ways he is a leader in line with Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard, rather than a departure from them.

He differs from his three predecessors in his capacity to read the political rhythms and to project Conservative policies in a way that gives them a wider appeal. Within weeks of his conference speech, Cameron was outlining his policies for addressing poverty. He has plans for an extensive redistribution of power, which might prove to be attractive after a single government has wielded power for more than a decade. As a public figure Cameron acts with a Blair-like humour and verve, incomparably more at ease with the demands of the modern media than the awkward figures who led his party between 1997 and 2005. He appears more human too, and was humanised further in the public's eyes this year when his severely disabled son, Ivan, died.

As a leader he is more of a stylistic experimentalist too. Bravely, he encouraged open primaries as a way of selecting candidates, events at which voters in a constituency can turn up and vote for the party's representative at the next election. He seemed relaxed also about the purging of the party's old guard as a result of the expenses' scandal.

But so far Cameron has failed to link character, values and policies into a coherent narrative. This is one of the reasons why at the end of the year he does not know for sure that he will win a substantial majority next year. During the past 12 months Cameron talked about poverty, but retained his plans to scrap inheritance tax for the wealthy. He remains committed to raising cash from non-domiciles, and yet it emerged that one of his more prominent parliamentary candidates, Zac Goldsmith, was a non-dom. More widely Cameron has tended to paper over the cracks in policy terms, rather than challenge his party as Tony Blair tended to do. After four years as leader of the opposition, the cracks have started to appear. On Europe, tax and spend, and climate change, parts of his party displayed signs of restlessness.

As these signs started to manifest themselves Brown became a slightly more self-confident public performer, sounding relaxed in interviews and deploying wit at Prime Minister's Question Time. Finally, he appeared to be almost enjoying himself instead of looking more miserable than the state of the economy.

In policy terms, Brown had a better year than his army of critics acknowledged, from hosting the G20 summit in London to maintaining a fiscal stimulus that most economists thought was necessary. His style of leadership and his past as a long-serving Chancellor were issues that weighed him down. Polls suggested that Cameron was incomparably more popular throughout the year, but more forensic questions were being asked of him at the end. Both leaders have cause to keep their fingers crossed as they contemplate a political year that will be the most challenging of their lives. By the end, one of them will have fallen off the high wire.

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