Steve Richards: The polls are poor, the news is bad. Is there any way back for Gordon Brown?

He knows that the 10p tax fiasco has blown his reputation for economic competence
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The Independent Online

In the current, semi-feverish atmosphere, there are daily reports of apocalyptic scenarios ranging from the dramatic removal of Gordon Brown to the virtual wipe-out of Labour as a political force at the next election. But what is the thinking on the other side of this speculative volcanic eruption? More precisely, what is going on in the mind of Gordon Brown as he reads the savage personal attacks and reflects on poll ratings so low that they break records?

No one knows for sure. They are not clear from Brown's public interviews, which have a habit of going in bizarre directions, with the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and Heathcliff becoming inadvertently and bizarrely part of the story. Having spent some time in discussions with those who know him well, here is my sense of his current thinking.

First, I do not believe for one moment that Brown is out of touch or in denial about the seriousness of either the political situation or the economic one. The media culture in Britain does not allow a Labour leader to be out of touch or to get too big for his or her boots for very long. Brown, like Tony Blair, was incapable of getting carried away in the good times. Both were nervous always of a Tory recovery. Not surprisingly therefore he is aware how bad things are now.

Even if, like most prime ministers, Brown claims publicly not to read the newspapers, I suspect he does do voraciously and will be aware of the level of vitriol aimed at him. Most days of the week, he reads or hears that he is useless or crazy, sometimes both. He knows also that his leadership is an issue with most voters, who blame him for everything and do not give him the benefit of doubt on any issue. Public and private polls descend on Downing Street, along with the latest oil and food prices. If anything, Brown is too in touch. Acute awareness can sometimes lead to a stifling caution.

I have also heard from some internal critics that he blames everyone but himself. I do not think this is the case either. To take one vivid example, he knows that the 10p tax fiasco was entirely down to him and that the original package, followed by the compensation, has blown his reputation for being committed to the poor and for economic competence. He knows also that he has yet to find a language to convey what he and his government are for and fears that it is almost impossible to be heard amidst economic gloom for which he alone is getting the blame.

So why or how does he keep going? Evidently, he is gripped by the economic situation and is determined to show that he can restore some stability. He had hoped to win the argument that this is a global downturn, with countries around the world suffering from the credit crunch and high oil prices, but now knows that the hostile climate means he has to do more than that. He considers it possible that there will be some stability in petrol prices by the time of the next election and believes genuinely that as someone with more experience on economic matters than anyone else in politics he is well placed to play whatever limited part a leader can in these circumstances. Some who have worked closely with him over this last year say that perversely there are elements of the job he finds more stimulating now than in the early months when voters paid homage.

Apparently, Brown takes some pride in policy decisions in relation to energy, planning and public services. There are also several unreported projects on the ground being started up, aimed at helping the poor, including many where local people take control of the scheme in ways that the Conservatives claim a little vaguely they wish to implement.

He does not underestimate the Conservative leadership and watches them obsessively. Again, no Labour leader brought up on the politics of the 1980s is capable of underestimating the potency of the Conservatives in England. But he notes that while they talk a progressive langue in general terms, when it comes to specifics they are incoherent, still unclear about energy, sending conflicting messages about green taxes and on many other issues too. He dares to hope that at some point the details of the Conservative message will also come under a degree of scrutiny and notes that some newspapers have started to pay more critical attention.

Part of his determined resilience is based on his own wildly oscillating career. He has had more highs and lows than any senior politician in recent history. Brown has been in the depths before and has climbed out of them to sunny uplands. It is worth charting the ups and downs briefly. After the 1992 election, fashionable columnists in the media and some in his party (including Blair) were urging him to stand for the leadership as the modernising candidate. He was on a high. By 1994 he had become deeply unpopular with his party because of his tough economic policies and Blair became leader. By the late 1990s he was winning rave reviews across the political spectrum as a prudent Chancellor delivering social justice.

After 11 September 2001, he was in the shadow of the crusading Blair, widely written off as a doomed, marginal figure. By 2005, he was so popular Blair had to put him at the centre of Labour's election campaign, an astonishing achievement for someone who had been a Labour chancellor for so long in a country that wants low US levels of taxation and European standards of public services. Soon after the election, he became deeply unpopular once more. Then when he became Prime Minister he became so popular that he was tempted to hold an early election. We all know what happened next.

These oscillations give him strength in the low times as well as hope that there might be one more high. Is there anything in all of this? Is it possible that Brown could recover?

Unquestionably, he is at the lowest of his many lows and the challenges are incomparably greater now. On previous occasions he had to win back public and media opinion when Labour was soaring in the polls and facing a weak Tory party. Now Labour is in a terrible state, the economy is weak and the Tory leadership is much more agile and voter-friendly as it subtly reheats Thatcherism for the 21st century. He faces the challenge of convincing his own party that it should not change leader, then the media and the country that he at least deserves to be heard without being instantly rubbished. It is a massive task in a country that has turned against its previous two prime ministers with a similar contempt bordering on hatred.

I do not know whether he is up to the challenge, but I am certain Brown is in no mood to pull out of his own volition. I am also certain that while he was being ridiculously overestimated a year ago, he is being underestimated now.