Steve Richards: The clash between Gordon Brown and his MPs was never quite what it seemed

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The Independent Online

I have to pinch myself. Gordon Brown is forced to make concessions so that some of the poorest do not lose out from his own plans. This is the same Gordon Brown who spent much of his time as Chancellor agonising over how to do more for the poor while despairing of his neighbour next door on the grounds that he was indifferent to the issue.

"Tony never gives a moment's thought to poverty," was a common complaint from Brown's closest aides in the Treasury. Now occupying the mightier Prime Ministerial altar, Brown stands accused of a similar indifference, in this instance only handing out some cash to the poor to save his own political skin.

Inevitably the real story is more complicated. The usual cliches will be thrown around about Brown being a hopeless ditherer, forced into a U-turn by his disdainful MPs. But the clash between Brown and his MPs was never as clearly defined as it seemed. To take one example, the leader of the rebels, Frank Field, is at least as keen a supporter of the abolition of the 10p tax rate as Brown has become. Field and Brown talk quite often these days. This is one of the areas on which they agree.

Even in his moment of triumph yesterday Field was unsure precisely how many would have lost out and by how much. At one point in a BBC interview, when asked about the number of losers, Field replied candidly:"Who knows?" He then proceeded to make an estimated calculation. Throughout this drama the number of losers and winners was partly a guessing game.

In that whirl of speculation Brown believed for a time that his repertoire of credits, tax relief and the rest had been misunderstood by the rebels and wilfully misreported by some in the media. He was guessing too when he foolishly claimed as the row erupted there would be no losers among the poor.

So let us be precise about Brown's mistake. Like Margaret Thatcher in relation to the poll tax, the Prime Minister did not believe what MPs were telling him. When he was Thatcher's environment secretary, Chris Patten told me he went to the prime minister on a regular basis with the latest nightmarish projections for the soaring level of poll tax bills. As Patten put it: "Margaret Hilda looked up at me and screamed that the figures were wrong."

Similarly Brown was convinced, and still is, that targeting resources through credits is more effective and fairer than the 10p tax rate which was introduced at a time when the credits had not taken full effect. He is right about this and there is no great crime in introducing a tax rate in one set of circumstances and removing it in another. The lower starting rate was announced when the more effectively targeted credits were less expansive.

For a time Brown was convinced also, to the point of fury, that the losers would be compensated through other means. He did not dither. He was too decisive. Thatcher refused to believe the figures. So did Brown.

Yet in the Commons yesterday Brown did not appear to me to be a defeated figure. He never does when he talks about poverty. There was no need for him to dissemble as he does so comically badly on some other issues. This was his theme, the one he came into politics to address.

There is therefore an odd twist to the episode, which makes it far removed from Thatcher and the poll tax. For years Brown has agonised over how to raise the debate about poverty in Britain. In a speech a few years ago to a conference organised by the left-of-centre pressure group Compass, Brown expressed the hope that poverty in Britain would become as fashionable a policy area as the alleviation of global poverty. But he knew the issues in a domestic context were far more thorny and that they inevitably involved questions about tax. As a result, he has never found a way of getting near this theme publicly. It has all been done in code. When he talks of a progressive consensus, a sense of fair play being part of the British character, and prudence for a purpose, he has in mind the tackling of poverty. He has not dared to say so.

Now through his own dogmatic ineptitude he has made the issue fashionable. Suddenly approaches to poverty matter in British politics. After years of seeking a language to make poverty fashionable, his own cock-ups meant that the theme dominated Prime Minister's Question Time. At the moment of his supposed public humiliation Brown appeared to be at ease with himself. Compare his performance yesterday with the one immediately after he announced there would be no election last autumn. On that occasion he was white with fear as David Cameron ran rings around him. Brown cannot act, and he knew he had made a colossal miscalculation. Yesterday he was in his pulpit talking about a theme that matters to him. Forced to make a U turn, he was more liberated as a performer.

From the other side the story is also more complicated. The success of the rebellion does not prove that Labour MPs are out of control. It shows, contrary to mythology, that politics works. Here was an issue in which poorer constituents were telling MPs about their concerns. Instead of doing nothing, the MPs acted. They did not do so because Brown is in a weak position. They rebelled in a similar way over the loss of payments to single parents during the first term when Blair and Labour were 30 points ahead in the polls. Sometimes issues arise when principle matters more than loyalty to party.

MPs will stir once more over Brown's plans to extend the period that suspects can be detained without charge to 42 days. Again this is good politics and Brown will have to respond. He is already doing so. For some time the line from Downing Street is that the main parties agree there might be circumstances in which a suspect needs to be detained for longer. They seek agreement on an appropriate mechanism to trigger an extension. At the very least this is tonally different from Brown's starting point, which in effect was to declare that the Tories were weak on terror and the Government was strong.

Brown's obsession with outmanoeuvring the Tories leaves him outmanoeuvred too often. I am told that when he delivered his last budget as Chancellor he had pencilled in next month, or the following one, as possible election dates. He imagined he would be able to open a campaign as a newish Prime Minister by proclaiming that he had cut the basic rate of tax for the second time. But nobody paid any attention the first time he cut the basic rate during Labour's first term. Even those working for Blair in Downing Street despaired that Brown had wasted £3bn pounds on a tax cut that nobody had noticed. This time Brown is being attacked for the losers in his Budget without getting credit for the winners.

Still, better the concessions announced yesterday than a fatal defeat in a Commons' vote next Monday. As a bonus, poverty becomes a big talking point at last. This has been another energy-sapping, nerve-wracking sequence for Brown. It could have been a lot worse.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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