Alan Watkins: Focus on the Opposition has blinded Brown

The Prime Minister did not deceive us, but his determination to catch out the Tories has contributed to the slow decline of Labour

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:42

Never neglect the obvious. For a decade we chose to be mesmerised by Mr Gordon Brown. We are now paying the price for our delusions extending over many years.

It is not Mr Brown's fault, or not entirely so. The failing lies in ourselves. Towards the middle of his Chancellorship, as I was listening to a Budget performance, the thought occurred to me: This man is unable to make a speech. He rushes his sentences. He gabbles his words. His pronunciation is grotesque: nothing to do with being Scottish, for most speakers from the Celtic nations have a natural declamatory gift, but perfectly ordinary words come out mangled.

More than this (so I thought at the time), Mr Brown cannot be bothered to learn. He lacks any courtesy to his audience. He is content to plough on, and we are lucky to be allowed to listen to his words at all.

At this stage of Mr Brown's career, mine was a minority view. He could do little wrong. Was he not the greatest Chancellor since David Lloyd George? Had he not abolished boom and bust? He was, and he had. Indeed, he and the Government whips had trained the forces behind them to repeat "boom and bust" in scorn at the Conservative benches across the floor.

Today, the Labour backbenchers have been taught to yell: "More, more", whenever Mr Brown puts up any sort of show against Mr David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, as he did last week.

All Chancellors, even the feeblest of them (and I do not include Mr Alistair Darling in this group), have a natural advantage when it comes to addressing an audience. It comes with the job. Mr Brown did not take any trouble because he did not have to take any trouble. He was, as people used to say about the preacher in the pulpit, four feet above contradiction. It is not true of Prime Ministers.

Still, we should not exaggerate the importance of Chancellors. R A Butler, Roy Jenkins, Geoffrey Howe and Kenneth Clarke were all impressive at the Treasury but none was to reach No 10. Mr Brown was not merely a good Chancellor, though in retrospect he was not quite so accomplished as he seemed to be at the time.

In his person he seemed to embody the aspirations of most of the Labour movement, or what was left of it after Mr Tony Blair had taken over.

Not only was there a King across the water: there was a King as a next-door neighbour in Downing Street. There was a period, indeed, when the Browns occupied No 10, and the Blairs No 11. Tiffs, quarrels, angry scenes, saucepans flying all over the place, at any rate metaphorically (or perhaps in reality as well, for who knows?): numerous political writers turned an honest shilling by providing a lively account of the goings-on in Downing Street and adjoining areas.

The end for Mr Blair came in September 2006, before the conference. He had supported Israel and the United States over Lebanon, much as Lloyd George supported Greece against Turkey after the First World War. In both cases, though the circumstances were different, the result was the same: the Prime Minister was thrown out by the majority party.

Throughout the saucepan-flinging years, before Mr Blair's departure last year, the myth was sedulously cultivated that Mr Brown was true, original or real Labour – the adjective was a matter of choice – and that he was quite different from Mr Blair. Mr Brown's first action was to bring into his Government people who were Conservative or Liberal Democrat or of no party at all.

Mr Mark Malloch Brown, later ennobled, was doing no harm to anyone at The Economist or the UN until he was plucked up and planted in the Foreign Office.

Lord Jones of Digby, or Lord Digby of Jones – no, it is Lord Jones of Birmingham – used to run the CBI but was made a minister on condition (his own, not Mr Brown's) that he did not have to take the preliminary precaution of joining the Labour Party. An Admiral was made Minister for Security. The precise status of assorted Liberal Democrat peers who were attached to the Government was unclear, as it remains to this day.

True, Mr Quentin Davies, who had defected to Labour, was not made a minister. But he was paraded round the Labour conference as if he had been a prize bull at an agricultural show with a rosette round his neck. Lord Malloch-Brown, as he had become, was likewise given a special slot at the conference, when others had wanted to speak at the conference – or "conference", without the definite article, as it is called in Labourspeak – for the whole of their lives and had not been given the chance. Accordingly it was with a certain sense of satisfaction that I looked on the events immediately following the Labour conference. Truly, God is not mocked.

In retrospect, Mr Brown's visit to the troops in Iraq was a grievous error. I thought it was poor behaviour on Mr Brown's part, but nothing like so reprehensible as others found it to be. In 1965, after the declaration of Rhodesian independence, Harold Wilson had flown to Balmoral to talk to the Queen and had ruined the Tory conference at Brighton. The papers could write about nothing else. The difference was, I suppose, that on that previous occasion the crisis was genuine, while last year Mr Brown or his advisers decided to go on a trip to Iraq.

Mr Brown would still have had to deal with Mr George Osborne's speech on inheritance tax. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, or both of them, should have made a considered response. There was no need for Mr Darling to announce anything at that stage. What he did do was not to equal Mr Osborne's promise – it is a piece of mythology that he did – but to raise the limit in stages and to transfer the allowances of deceased spouses to their survivors.

The Labour backbenchers waved their order papers idiotically but they were signing their execution warrants. Their Government was in a panic.

So it was over the date of the inaction. I thought that Mr Brown would not hold an election and – what was not at all the same thing – that he would be unwise to hold one. On the first bit I was right, whereas on the second I was probably wrong. I am still not convinced that he would have won in October or even November. But he stood a better chance then than he does now or in the immediate future.

Apart from Mr Brown's intrinsic failings, and the slow decline of Labour, the catastrophic change came in two weeks of October. But throughout this entire period, for Mr Brown's whole spell at No 10, his object has been to catch out the Opposition. That was the purpose of the imported ministers; the visit of Margaret Thatcher to No 10; the visit to Iraq; the refusal to nationalise Northern Rock until there was no other solution; the imposition of the 42-day limit. When he took over, one of his aides announced that there would be an end to triangulation. But this is precisely the course he has followed.

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