Steve Richards: Truly Brown is the great survivor

No one can survive as long as the PM without having a few epic strengths
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown is popping up all over the place. There he was on Friday giving a tonally astute performance in front of the Iraq Inquiry. By the weekend he was off for a misjudged trip to Afghanistan, one that was either cynically timed or should have been rearranged on the grounds that it would be perceived as cynical. By yesterday morning he was hosting a breakfast back at Number 10 to celebrate International Women's Day. No doubt there were many assignments between these three events.

I must have read a thousand predictions that Brown would be gone by now and a further thousand proclaiming that he should be. There have been three attempted coups against him, a record for any Prime Minister, at an average of more than one a year. Two books have been published in recent weeks portraying him as demented. Britain staggers tentatively out of recession following a period in which Brown virtually alone determined economic policy. He remains in Number 10 and some opinion polls suggest that the gap with the Conservatives is narrowing.

There is a pattern here. When Brown was Chancellor, a thousand voices predicted at certain key moments that he would never be Prime Minister. A thousand theories accompanied the voices. He was Scottish. He was too openly disloyal to Tony Blair. He was so obviously useless. When he became Prime Minister the chorus moved on to predicting his demise before the general election. He is about to lead the party's campaign.

How has he survived for so long at the top of British politics, at least since 1992 when he was made shadow chancellor, if he is this deranged, bullying incompetent who cannot communicate and has no strategic skills? Part of the answer relates to stamina, appetite for politics and thick-skinned durability. There are not many people who could put up with such assaults on their character. Evidently Brown wants to keep going even if that means facing a daily hell of abuse. If he did not want to do so he has had more opportunities than most to give up.

On one level the long years at the top of politics are a problem for Brown in that he has passed the shelf life of public tolerance for a high-profile media personality (I would put the tolerance at eight years maximum). But experience has some countervailing benefits. He has faced so many dilemmas, suffered immense disappointments and enjoyed fleeting highs that he knows nothing else but the intense heat at the top of politics. Almost the same applies to Peter Mandelson who was toiling away for the Labour party in the mid-1980s, seeking to get it a good press at a point when newspapers were relentlessly hostile.

Mandelson knows a thing or two about setbacks and the importance of keeping going or never stopping. Even though he has despaired of Brown at times in recent months, and Brown spent his Christmas break in a state of neurotic anxiety worrying that Mandelson was part of the latest plot against his leadership, the two of them have in common an undimmed appetite for politics and for seeking to win elections.

One of the reasons Brown has been a little more relaxed since the New Year was the failure of the Hoon/Hewitt plot, which he knew was coming, and the fact that the election is moving into view. Contrary to mythology, Brown likes elections, or at least the prospect of them. He avoided internal leadership contests in order to maintain the misleading façade of unity at the top of the Labour party, but he has always relished battles between parties, deserting the Treasury during the government's first term to revive the flagging campaign for the first Scottish parliament for several weeks and masterminding the last three general election campaigns. His internal critics snootily dismiss his approach to fighting elections, but none of them can claim such a record.

The record hints at the main reason for the durability. He is not as useless as his army of critics believe him to be. No one can survive at the top of British politics for so long without having quite a few epic strengths as well as, in his case, the familiar weaknesses.

I wonder whether the wobble on the Conservatives' side is partly the product of an earlier complacency about Brown, an assumption that if he remained as PM they would sail to victory without having to address issues relating to Lord Ashcroft or how they plan to implement their contradictory policies. But Brown has been around for a long time and is surrounded by others who are similarly experienced.

For all the traumas and fall-outs since 1994 when Blair became leader, the same people are more or less ready to fight once more. From Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell to the Brownite entourage they are the most experienced election campaigners in the western world.

Sometimes durability can feed on itself, another reason why Brown remains in place. For a leader the act of survival can be a form of limited renewal. I spent part of yesterday reflecting with an ally of Brown's on the 12 months that followed the non-election in the autumn of 2007. We agreed it was one of the most chaotic and calamitous periods for a Prime Minister in post-war British politics: the non-election, the 10p tax debacle, the failed attempt to introduce 42 days' detention without charge, U-turns on petrol duty, an uncosted pledge to abolish inheritance tax for most voters.

The list could go on and on – the consequence of a fragile Prime Minister drained of confidence, losing a strategy and not knowing how to cope. But Brown kept going, has acquired a bit more confidence, and has almost discovered an authentic prime ministerial voice, which is more combative and wittier than the absurdly unconvincing projection of an apolitical, consensual leader with weighty matters on his mind.

I would be surprised if Brown can turn round the Tory lead in the polls, but I note that David Cameron is stumbling as the election approaches and that most of Labour's insurrectionists are leaving parliament, wondering what to do next. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is still Prime Minister.