Steve Richards: Clumsy, reckless and a shadow of his former self

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The Independent Online

As a chancellor, Gordon Brown was ferociously disciplined and nimble-footed in his preparation and presentation of policies. In his Prime Ministerial role he has become clumsy and reckless, as if he has metamorphosed from a gymnast going for gold to one of the more desperate contestants on Strictly Come Dancing.

In unveiling the government's housing package this week, was Brown seeking to revive the economy, rescue the housing market, or help a few victims of the credit crunch? Before the announcement, some people were expecting the first on this list. On the day the package was launched Brown implied the second. The reality was probably closer to the third. The blurred presentation, with its hint of rushed panic, is a vivid contrast with Brown's approach to policy-making when he was Chancellor and highlights what has gone wrong since he made the move to No 10.

These initiatives were never going to set the world alight. The government hasn't the resources to reverse the overwhelming tide of a global credit crunch. Instead the proposals will help some of those most immediately vulnerable, owners facing repossession and those hoping to get on the housing market.

The problem is not the measures, but the preparation. Somehow or other the government allowed expectations to grow that the proposals were part of a grand new economic plan. I have no idea how this became an expectation. Those around the Prime Minister insist they never briefed such a grandiose vision. The Chancellor and his friends did not do so either. If they had, we would have heard more about it during Alistair Darling's holiday interview where he revealed his innermost thoughts on other matters.

I was surprised to read about such an economic plan because Brown's instincts are to keep away from any hint of old Labour corporatism. He still cannot admit that he has nationalised a bank. As far as he is concerned, Northern Rock is in "temporary public ownership". A formal emergency economic plan, with its linguistic echoes of Soviet thinking in the 1920s and Britain's panic measures in the 1970s, would make him run a mile. Nonetheless hopes or fears were high that sweeping measures would be unveiled. Not surprisingly therefore the incremental measures announced on Monday were quickly dismissed.

The contrast between expectation management and the announcements was made worse by the seemingly confused objectives. Brown said that voters should be reassured that the government would "keep the housing market moving forward". An aide to the Chancellor was quoted as saying that these measures were not aimed at propping up the housing market, but focussed on helping two specific groups, first-time buyers and those in trouble repaying mortgages. As an added source of confusion it was not entirely clear how the package would be financed, an omission for which Brown rightly savages the Conservatives when they imply spending increases with a casual complacency.

Yet there was a way in which precisely the same package could have been projected more effectively. First Brown should have returned from his holidays and made fairness a defining theme in speeches and articles. Other ministers should have joined in. At the same time they should have made clear that the government was determined not to be financially reckless by spending too much additional cash, which would have unfair consequences. It would not have huge sums available, but would do what it could to help those who needed it most.

Having established a theme of fairness, the constraints within which it was acting, and agreement on the objectives of the measures, Darling could have announced the package in his pre-Budget report, adding that governments can make a difference and that people cannot rely on markets and charities alone: "Fairness, prudence and a determination to return to the economic stability of the previous decade. Thank you and good night".

I am not suggesting that such a sequence would have led to a sudden outbreak of glowing applause from the electorate. As Brown's allies reflect despairingly, they struggle to be heard when the economic news is relentlessly bad. But by clearing the ground so emphatically, they might not have been greeted with such a uniform thumbs-down.

Brown should know. He is the model for the alternative approach. These days it is the fashion to rubbish his tenure at the Treasury, but even his harshest critics must acknowledge the political skills that accompanied the policies. Over a lengthy period he managed to put up taxes, redistribute some cash, increase public spending, and remain popular. He pulled it off by planning carefully, winning broader arguments, highlighting carefully thought through themes before implementing specific policies. As Chancellor he would not have given the go-ahead to the housing package as it was presented this week. At the Treasury he was obsessive about preparing the ground and the clarity of the objectives. Now he runs on to the ground too frequently in a desperate bid for political recovery.

One example of his earlier astuteness as Chancellor was the introduction of the annual pre-Budget report itself, an innovation accepted now as part of the yearly schedule. In effect the additional event gave Brown the chance to make changes twice a year rather than once in the Budget. There was no need for emergency packages because before very long it would be time for the actual Budget or the pre-Budget report. He was ruthless in saving announcements until one of those two events.

Again, the contrast with the past year is marked. In the pre-Budget report Darling announced a cut in inheritance tax that a few weeks earlier he had no intention of announcing. Later he revised a tax on businesses announced in the pre-Budget report. The compensation for the 10p tax abolition followed this spring's Budget. Now we get a series of announcements in September following intense pressure from Brown in his new role as Prime Minister. Suddenly there is the equivalent of a pre-Budget report most days of the week.

There are differences of course between now and then, excuses for the extraordinary contrast. It is easier to plan and implement policies in a booming economy than one that is in a serious downturn, the most challenging for 60 years in the view of the Chancellor. As Prime Minister there are a thousand other things to do as well. But the gap between the skilled aplomb with which he approached announcements as Chancellor and the current chaos is more revealing than that. Brown is in trouble, and in trying to get out of it he makes matters worse. The much reported tensions within No 10 are both a symptom and a cause of his political clumsiness.

Anyway, however legitimate some of the excuses might be, they are irrelevant. Excuses do not win elections.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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