Steve Richards: Britain's leaders could never emulate Obama

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The Independent Online

With comical predictability Gordon Brown and David Cameron claimed Obama as one of their own. For Cameron, the President-elect is the youthful personification of change in the face of a long-serving incumbent administration. As far as Brown is concerned he is a progressive with views close to his own at a point in history when their common outlook chimes with the demands of the time.

Both are pushing it for the obvious reason that the next election here will have its own distinct dynamics. Above all there is one important difference between Britain and the US. Here a long-serving left-of-centre government will be taking on a Conservative opposition. In the US the left-of-centre Obama was perfectly placed to benefit from the confused disarray of an administration that had, until recently, worshipped at the altar of the marketplace.

Unlike McCain he had no association with the incumbent administration. At least as important, he has put the case for active government and more regulation for years. Not surprisingly when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Bush administration became sudden fans of government intervention, Obama's lead soared. McCain could not find a narrative to explain what had gone wrong.

Cameron can claim to be a new and fresh political figure. But unlike Obama and like McCain he has offered no compelling narrative for what has gone wrong with the economy and what he would do to put it right. The Conservatives are as divided as the Republicans about what they should do next. At the Conservative Party conference, Cameron insisted he was a man with a plan. I have yet to meet anyone who knows what that plan is.

In contrast Brown's private views are close to Obama's although he has not been brave enough to articulate them in public very often. Obama's definition of the centre ground has been slightly bolder than New Labour's. In the famous election debate about the financial burdens of Joe the Plumber, Obama dared to argue that on $200,000 (£124,000) a year he should be taxed more. New Labour would run a mile from such an argument. Brown was an admirer of Clinton's. But Obama's politics are closer to his own.

Brown's problem is that he's been running the economy for more than a decade paying homage to the US way of doing things. Voters here could easily blame him for their plight. Obama could not be held similarly responsible as he put the case subtly and engagingly for more active government.

In Britain the winner of the next election will be the leader who convinces voters that they have learnt the lessons of recent epoch-changing events. The Obama victory is bound to excite political leaders, but there will be no equivalent when we vote next.