Leading Article: Brown: the case for the defence

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The Independent Online

The time has come to make the case for Gordon Brown. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, so everybody is agreed, Mr Brown has been a disaster as a Prime Minister. He has no story to tell; he is indecisive, a ditherer in Conservative Central Office's lexicon; and he is painfully slow on his feet. In short, he is a busted flush. Just look at the local elections and the opinion polls.

If he's lucky, the story goes, he might just lurch on for two miserable years to inevitable defeat at the general election. If his colleagues are brave enough to get their act together, they'll dump him sooner, probably for a caretaker such as Alan Johnson or – more likely – Jack Straw. That stand-in's job will be to lose the next election as narrowly as possible, and to serve as a decontamination zone for young Mr Miliband (David, they mean, although some think Ed is a better bet).

The narrative is set. The hacks – politicians and pundits – have agreed their line, rather like sports reporters comparing interpretations of a football manager's post-match quotes. Everything that happens until his unavoidable demise is henceforth seen through the prism of Mr Brown as sad loser. Even normal civilities have been suspended. It is perfectly permissible to be as rude as you like about the Prime Minister.

Into all of this, Cherie Blair decides to sally forth, wielding the stiletto as a scalpel. The effect is to elevate her husband, diss the PM, and, of course, to net her a six-figure sum. Can she really need that money that much? And yet. And yet.

There are two issues to consider. First, the nature of the Westminster beast, and why it might not be as omniscient as it considers itself to be. Second, the relative virtues of the Prime Minister and David Cameron – in short, what politics should really be about: values and policies.

On the first, has Westminster forgotten the key maxims in politics – Macmillan's events and Wilson's week? Less than a year ago, it was all sticky for the Tory boy wonder, so sticky that there were rumblings of another change of leader. If Mr Brown does withstand the current barrage, is it inconceivable that he could recover? In any case, does Westminster speculation really register in the country? Sure, the voters gave Mr Brown a kicking barely a week ago, and may well do so in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election next week, but does that mean defeat is inevitable in 2010? Most voters engage occasionally, in the polling booths, not every waking moment.

On the second and more fundamental question, we say this. Mr Cameron may very well make a good prime minister. The difficulty is that we cannot come to an informed opinion until we can flush out where he stands. He is charming, attractive, and does empathy very well.

Mr Brown is, as we all know, a very different being. He has made some terrible errors. He does come across as indecisive. Mr Blair never gave the impression of worrying about any of his decisions, as long as he made one, but is that in itself so admirable?

The big question, though, is this. What are the core values of Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg? The electorate probably realises – and this sounds odd – that Mr Brown is a politician who cares. Do we feel the same way yet about Mr Cameron, or is politics simply his chosen medium for success? It may be that Mr Brown is the real empathiser, even if he can't express it.

It is a long, long way back for the Prime Minister. No one would deny that. He may not have the stomach for it, and he will have to find his mojo if he has to have any hopes of it. From the time he bested Nigel Lawson as the young stand-in for John Smith in 1988 to his despatch of four shadow chancellors during his own decade as chancellor, he has shown that he can command the House of Commons.

He does not deserve to be written off by the Westminster herd. His record as chancellor ought to inspire confidence that he can steer the country through a time of economic uncertainty. As Prime Minister, he has been vilified for some things that have had no practical effect, such as not having an unnecessary election. Meanwhile, most of the Government is getting on with its business, without some of the worst excesses of initiativitis that bedevilled Mr Blair. In the health service, for example, solid progress is being made on making it easier to see a GP, cutting waiting lists and controlling hospital infections. Yet the relative absence of headline-seeking has been filled by a media narrative about how useless the Government is at presentational politics.

British politics needs Gordon Brown at his best. We need him to gird his loins and fight for his achievements with conviction. The odds may be against him, but the country can only be the victor if the next election pits a resurgent Mr Brown against a formidable Mr Cameron.