Steve Richards: Brown cannot stay silent when the media spotlight is upon him

Blair advocated first and developed policy second; Brown opts for the reverse

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The row over the release of the Lockerbie bomber has little do do with substance, but reflects a revolutionary change in the political and media culture. It is more about what we expect from a Prime Minister in the modern era, or at least what the media expects. The new culture is entirely at odds with Gordon Brown's political style and explains why he has failed to engage with the electorate as Prime Minister.

Tony Blair was the architect of the new culture. As far as policy is concerned, Blair was the most cautious Prime Minister in modern times, fearful of acting in ways that might alienate his so-called Middle England supporters. In terms of communication, he was a revolutionary. Blair chose to be our guide around the clock, responding within seconds to every event, from the death of Princess Diana to the imprisonment of Deirdre Barlow in Coronation Street. He was a rolling commentator on his leadership and an eternal advocate, flexible as to what he was talking about and willing at all times to be held to account.

Quite often the never-ending public appearances had little to do with policy, and they were sometimes an alternative to policy making. Blair took centre-stage at a series of "Welfare Roadshows" without having any new policies on welfare. Within days of the July 7 bombings in London he announced a 10-point plan; none of the points was ever implemented. In unveiling a new set of policies aimed at tackling crime, Blair declared that the programme marked the end of the permissive 1960s – which was news to David Blunkett who, as Home Secretary, had written the document. Sometimes more serious policy making chimed with his public appearances, but Blair's conversation with the electorate via the media was continuous.

The revolutionary impact is underestimated. Margaret Thatcher never gave pre-arranged interviews to the Today programme. She hardly appeared in public in the build-up to the Falklands War or during the conflict itself beyond delivering a few statements calling on us to "rejoice". Her low media profile meant that a single subsequent engagement with an angry voter in which she was questioned about the sinking of the Belgrano became an historic event.

The contrast with Blair in the build- up to Iraq – when he gave a press conference a day and chose to appear in front of angry voters – is like entering two different worlds, and incidentally challenges the view that he was a "liar". If Blair had something to hide, he could have hidden.

Go slightly further back and the comparisons become even more striking. As Prime Minister, Harold Wilson chose not to campaign in the 1975 referendum on Britain's membership of the Common Market. He declared his support for our continued membership and more or less left the stage to others for three weeks. The media attacked Wilson on many fronts, but there were few comments about his low profile. It was not that unusual for prime ministers to be away from the media spotlight.

Brown's style of leadership cannot meet the new fashion for prime ministerial ubiquity. This is not because he is "weak" or "cowardly". These banalities are too simplistic for someone who has been at the top of British politics for two decades. The explanation is more complex.

At the Treasury, Brown developed an entirely different approach to leadership which was less ostentatious but sometimes highly effective. Whereas Blair tended to advocate first and develop policies second, Brown opted for the reverse. He implemented some courageous policies, but it was only after their implementation that he became a public advocate on their behalf. For example, when he announced tax rises in his 2003 budget, he played the role of a neutral administrator, citing the senior banker, Derek Wanless, as the independent expert making the case.

More widely, Brown only started to argue publicly for higher spending once the investment had been stealthily raised and accepted by voters. His public advocacy tends to be on ill-defined themes which claim wide support, such as "Britishness" or being "competitive in a global economy". This was a largely successful strategy when Brown was Chancellor, and one that is followed by his protégés, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, in government.

Balls, for example, only announced his proposals for diplomas once he had secured the support of the CBI. Miliband seeks a "progressive consensus" on climate change in order to gain the space to make tough decisions. But it is not possible as Prime Minister to build support and then speak out. For a media generation brought up on Blair there needs to be an around- the-clock prime ministerial dialogue.

Some in the media thought they despised Blair for his presentational skills, but they did not really do so. They loved the ubiquity and the self deprecating advocacy, which is why a lot of them turn to David Cameron, who models his leadership style on Blair.

From Brown's perspective it is easy to imagine the frustration and anger he feels at being diverted. The beginning of September is a crucial agenda-setting period, one of the few phases in the year in which a political leader has the chance to change the terms of the debate. Brown was determined to open the new political year on the economy, an area in which he has a case to make, at least in comparison with the Conservatives who seem to be calling for tax rises, tax cuts, massive, immediate spending cuts and increases in health, defence, education and welfare. But instead of highlighting the divide, Brown faced demands to dance around the land mines marked "Lockerbie", in which one word out of place could lead to several explosions.

With a dogged naïvety, for several days he opted for silence until finally a short, evasive statement was followed on Wednesday by a longer, but still contorted, explanation. He was being obstinately unrealistic.

If Blair had been Prime Minister, Alastair Campbell would have phoned within 24 hours to tell him that his silence had become the story and that the only way to change the narrative was to speak out. Brown has no equivalent to Campbell. Only Peter Mandelson or Ed Balls would have the authority or courage to make such a call, and they have big departments to run.

For Brown, breaking the silence would have been difficult over an issue as complex as one involving Libya, Lockerbie and relations with the US, and at a time when he is without a constituency in the media. But as one of Blair's former senior advisers told me recently: "As Prime Minister you face a decision every hour which comes down to one question – do you want to cut your throat or slit your wrists?" In opting for silence Brown sought to avoid the question and predictably became the noisy story.

The political year opens as the last one ended. Cameron is at ease with the post-Blair political culture, engaging with voters from early morning to late at night. In policy terms, at least as far as the economy is concerned, he is muddled and unconvincing. Brown is incapable of reading the rhythms of the modern political age, but has at least a partially coherent case to make about the country's future in a global economy and the policies he implemented during the recession. The communicator is well ahead.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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