Times change but Gordon Brown remains what he has always been, a cautiously bold politician, someone who sweats nervously over tiny incremental matters and yet one who tiptoes precariously on a high wire when addressing the more epic ones. The contradictions persist. Brown is the dour Calvinist who tries hard to please and yet generates a thousand storms that threaten to throw him off the high wire. He is widely seen as dull but there is a whiff of danger in the air when he is around.
The contrasts were on full display during the speech he delivered in Washington on Wednesday. Most of the sermonising banalities in his address were meaningless, but there were three themes that moved beyond the safely consensual – the need for international agreement on climate change, wealth not belonging to the wealthy alone and poverty in Africa. To a British audience the anecdotes and exhortations were tediously familiar, but they were fresh to his audience in the US.
The reason why the event did not appear entirely like an embarrassing contrivance is an important one. However many exhausted advisers worked around the clock on drafts of the speech, Brown wrote the final version. It was clearly his authentic voice, his favoured themes delivered as a sermon, the form or oratory with which he is most at ease.
Brown haters in Britain, and some of those who wish him well, argue that he cannot survive politically being himself. He is so unpopular he must change. I disagree. I suspect authenticity will be an important weapon in the next election. As I have written before I cannot recall a leader who has won an election without having a genuinely authentic voice. The voice can be awkward, but it must be distinct and real.
I have read several columns this week in various publications in which it is confidently asserted that the Prime Minister is an irrelevance, a despairing Cabinet has given up and a leadership contest is under way. Yet even if Brown loses the election he still has more than a year of power during a period of highly charged significance. He has more time in No 10 ahead of him than Tony Blair had after he announced he would be standing down as PM.
As for the so-called leadership contest, it is now taking an even more surreal form. Two weeks ago it was reported that Harriet Harman was storming ahead. Now I read she has suffered a setback after her performance standing in for Brown at PM's Question Time. Harman has risen and fallen without declaring she plans to stand in a contest that does not exist.
Having spoken to just about every minister mentioned as a possible leadership candidate in recent weeks my sense is that something more complicated is going on. Most of them do not believe it is certain they will lose the next election. Quite a lot of them seem rightly more preoccupied by a more immediate dilemma: they claim the new economic era as a left-of-centre one, already opening doors they were previously scared to touch, such as the current raging debate about high pay and bonuses.
But they also served for more than a decade in the previous era which is now discredited. How do they bridge the gap? The question is a more legitimate source of agonising than their prospects in an ill defined future contest. It is a difficult one to answer.
Most of the embryonic ministerial candidates agree that there are a range of possible outcomes at the next election from a hung parliament in which Labour is the biggest party to a big Tory win, but they have not given up. Contrary to John Humphrys' revealing remark on BBC Radio 4's Today programme the other day that politicians are not like the rest of us, they are only too like the rest of us.
It is quite possible for them in their world to hope for a Labour victory and at the same time contemplate what might happen in the event of a defeat, in the same way that ambitious journalists hope their newspapers or programmes thrive, but would happily step in to be the next editor or presenter if they fail. The extent to which the Cabinet is now out on leadership manoeuvres is hugely overplayed.
Cabinet members will have no choice but to be so after the election unless Brown makes strides in his latest risky, cautious venture on the economic front. The outcome of his venture will determine the politics of the next few months rather than whether or not he says "sorry" for what happened to the economy in the preceding decade.
These silly "apology" debates in the emotive, whirlpool of British politics are mischievously imprecise. Blair was under the same pressure over the war in Iraq, in his case presumably to say: "I'm sorry I wrongly sent British soldier to their deaths." Apparently Brown must now say: "I am sorry I wrecked the economy" as a way of moving on. In both cases they would have had to utter the follow up sentence: "I therefore resign immediately."
Brown is closer to getting the tonal contrition right by stating that he is learning the lessons of what went catastrophically wrong, as that gives a bit of hope for the future as well as implicitly accepting a degree of culpability for the negligence.
His solution for addressing the negligence is his latest cautiously risky venture, the biggest of his career. As he made clear in Washington he seeks an international agreement at the G20 summit next month to co-ordinate regulation and recovery packages. This is playing for high stakes. He clings to a plan as if it was a life raft, but he could sink with it. The Europeans are sniffy. Some of the non-Europeans are far from sure.
Still at least Brown has a plan. I can envisage David Cameron sitting with President Barack Obama at an informal press conference, entirely at ease with himself and delivering a charming speech to Congress. But it is hard to imagine what he would say given that uniquely he opposes a fiscal stimulus of any kind and supports cuts in planned spending increases.
Next month will be a defining one in terms of the politics of the recession. The budget follows the G20 summit and is likely to focus on a more limited version of the Obama-inspired, low-carbon fiscal stimulus. Presumably the Conservatives will oppose the measures, a 1980s-style hair-shirt approach that will at some point merit a little more probing than is currently taking place. But of course they will not be probed very intensely if Brown's risks fail to make a tangible difference. In such circumstances the Conservatives will win by default.
Money is printed. Borrowing soars. Taxes are cut. Interest rates fall. Other independent-minded countries are called upon to work together. Will it work? Not for the first time in a wildly oscillating career the cautious Gordon Brown has his fingers firmly crossed as he risks all.Reuse content