Steve Richards: Will Brown's G20 boasts go the way of the election that wasn't?

For the Prime Minister this is the World Cup final and a trip to Mars all rolled into one

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The build-up to next week's G20 in London has echoes of the excitement about the early election in the autumn of 2007. Famously the election never happened, although the prospect of one was talked up foolishly by Gordon Brown's allies. In a similar fashion two weeks ago Mr Brown was hailing "a grand bargain, a global deal" as he looked ahead to next week's international gathering. Now the bargain looks a little less grand and not altogether global. Like the election, the grand bargain is postponed.

Earlier this week I asked a cabinet minister close to the Prime Minister when and why the strategic decision was taken to talk up the G20 in advance. He was not sure such a decision was taken. Mr Brown had chosen to talk it up.

Of course the Prime Minister saw the event as an opportunity on lots of different levels. I am told that the gathering has been the sole focus of Downing Street's hyper-activity for weeks. Virtually no Prime Ministerial thought has gone into what follows the G20 and the budget. One government insider says far more preparation has gone into next week's event compared with the Gleneagles summit in 2005, which was seen as a big event at the time. It is Mr Brown's equivalent of a World Cup Final and a trip to Mars rolled into one.

But recognising a multi-layered opportunity is a different matter to deciding in advance that the gathering should be hyped up to a degree that the heightened expectations cannot be met. As far as there is an explanation I suspect there was much excitement in No. 10 at the election of President Obama, heralding as it did a genuine convergence in economic policy, and also a hope that the rest of the G20 would follow the same course as the rock star President. It has not worked out like that.

Instead, a coalition of figures – from Mervyn King to Angela Merkel – caution against a further fiscal stimulus. Now Mr Brown does so too. In Washington this week he declared that "what we are suggesting is that we have to look at what we have done so far". He embarked on a crusade and ends apparently with the global equivalent of Newsnight Review, in which leaders look back on recent events.

Yet the latest orthodox anti-Brown narrative also merits further scrutiny. It goes something along these lines: An increasingly independent and therefore more impressive Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is battling it out with the reckless Prime Minister. He got the support of a brave Mervyn King. At the same time international co-operation is blocked by those wise Europeans who, like the Conservatives here, are against a fiscal stimulus.

The narrative works on the basic assumption that the good guys are all those who make life even more nightmarish for Mr Brown, even if the new heroes were previously villains. In a dramatic reversal of their normal roles the great stars are the Europeans standing up against the deranged Anglo-American economic policy. Mr Darling becomes heroic for preaching Treasury orthodoxy. So does Mervyn King. I wonder about some of this. As Hercules Poirot used to say to his sidekick: "Everything is in front of our eyes and yet, mon ami, we reach the wrong conclusions".

First, are Merkel and her other Europeans allies necessarily right? They were complacently slow in responding to the crisis in the first place. A cabinet minister tells me of a meeting with European counterparts in the early autumn where they were expressing sympathy with the plight of the UK as if they were untouched by the crisis. The European Central Bank was slow to cut interest rates, and last July put them up as the clouds were visibly gathering. Now some of the member states cite a fear of debt as an excuse for not doing more. But as President Obama has discreetly pointed out they hope to benefit from the expansionary policies being pursued in the US.

In another twist, the original German stimulus was bigger than the one introduced by the British government. Mervyn King supported the original British stimulus. The Conservative leadership claims the views of Merkel and King as vindication for its approach, but it opposed the earlier fiscal stimulus too.

What of Mr Darling's position? Quite often in the midst of economic crises Chancellors become representatives for the Treasury, advocating policies that later prove to be wrong. Denis Healey admits in his memoirs that the Treasury's calculations about the seriousness of Britain's economic crisis in the mid-1970s proved to be over the top. As a result, public spending was cut more than necessary.

I am not arguing that this proves definitively that the Treasury is wrong now (although I have heard the exclamation from within No.10 and indeed in parts of the Treasury: "The Treasury is so cautious!"). I question whether the basic assumption is correct, that the Treasury must be right if it makes life difficult for Mr Brown.

The intervention of Ed Balls yesterday in an interview in the New Statesman in which he admitted he would like to be Chancellor, but not yet, was a gentle public reminder that Mr Darling has one or two others breathing down his neck. Mr Balls could hardly say that he wanted the job now. But there is no doubt that – as an economist who still advises Mr Brown on economic matters – he would relish a move to the Treasury.

When he first became Prime Minister, Mr Brown envisaged Mr Darling being a steady hand on the tiller while he himself played the consensual father of the nation – the duo leading Britain quietly towards an election. Mr Brown had always planned to make Mr Balls Chancellor at some point after that. Instead Mr Darling finds himself at the centre of the biggest economic crisis for at least eighty years.

At the centre of the storm I wonder again how "independent" of Mr Brown he is or should be. In spite of the tensions between them Mr Brown is a cautious figure too. Admittedly he might have concluded that another massive fiscal stimulus was the most cautious route available to him. But out of self-interest alone he would not have gone ahead if there was a danger that the markets would respond by going crazy, or even crazier.

Similarly Mr Darling is astute enough politically to know that in next month's Budget he could not have said, "In the light of our massive debt crisis I can do no more. Thank you and good night and see you on the opposition benches". Mr Darling will have something to announce in his Budget, a more important domestic political event than the related G20 gathering.

The orthodox narrative will conclude that next week's G20 is a non-event. Perhaps it will be, but the consequences of failure would go well beyond the fate of Mr Brown. A more internationally co-ordinated approach would boost the prospects for recovery here and elsewhere. On that basis alone let us hope that the actual narrative ends with a slightly more nuanced conclusion, even if the giddy heights of Mr Brown's original over-the-top vision were never going to be reached.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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