Alan Watkins: Mr Brown lacks the Commons touch

Of the four Labour premiers since 1964, the current PM is the least convincing public performer. And he can't take a joke

Sunday 11 May 2008 00:00

Here I am having a guess rather than making a prediction. My guess is that Mr Gordon Brown will cease to be Prime Minister, sooner rather than later, more because of his inadequacies at Question Time than because of his failures at finance.

This is, I know, a minority view. It is not that he is regarded as a great or any sort of success at No 10, for he is not: au contraire, as the late George Brown used to say when he had taken a few drinks on board. It is, rather, that the House of Commons is judged to be unimportant in the great scheme of things.

Harold Macmillan used to say that all political authority derived from the Commons. When that went, as it did, for him, early in 1963, all was lost – though medical opinion, when he finally departed later in the year, told him he could carry on. As things turned out, he lived on to the great age of 92.

Prime Minister's Questions dated only from 1961. Macmillan's regular questioner was the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. Winston Churchill used to be wheeled in to his place at the front bench below the gangway. He took little interest in the proceedings. After a short period, an hour at most, he was wheeled out again.

Macmillan and Gaitskell disliked each other but put up a show of mutual civility. "Most interesting suggestion...", Macmillan would say, "... shall certainly bear it in mind ... food for thought." Macmillan was still Prime Minister when Harold Wilson became Leader of the Opposition after Gaitskell's death.

There was a change of tone, sharper, less friendly. Wilson had been admiringly called "gritty" and "abrasive", both adjectives that were later to be applied to Edward Heath. But Wilson continued to regard Macmillan with a certain circumspection as long as he was Prime Minister.

The change occurred when Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister in October 1963. Wilson chose to treat Home as a figure of fun, as in many respects, through no fault of his own, he was. It was the beginning of modern politics, when scorn, abuse, allegations alike of bad faith and of downright lying, became the small change of discourse between party leaders and their respective followers.

To begin with, Labour played the new game better than the Tories did. Though Wilson became bored as Leader of the Opposition, and it was something of a surprise to him when he was elected Prime Minister at all for the third time round, he was always master of Heath across the floor of the House.

James Callaghan was equally masterful. He specialised in patronising Margaret Thatcher. "There, there, little lady," he would say, or words to this effect, "some of us have a bit of experience in negotiating these matters." Inglorious though his final phase undoubtedly was, he maintained his control of the House to the last.

Michael Foot kept his end up, just about, largely – perhaps entirely – owing to his supremacy as a debater.

Neil Kinnock's experience was less happy. Mrs Thatcher would insist on screaming at the top of her voice, and there was nothing that anybody, least of all the then Mr Kinnock, could do to stop her. Indeed, the Labour leader became thoroughly demoralised, and who could blame him?

The advent of John Major, a more quiet performer, provided hope for a reversion to older ways. But it was not to be. When John Smith succeeded, the Prime Minister referred to him as "Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels", – vulgar abuse indeed! Then Smith died of heart trouble, poor chap.

Immediately the political class was overwhelmed by a flow of contrition and remorse. We should all stop being so beastly to one another. It was christened "The Spirit of John Smith". The admirable Mr Andrew Marr was, I remember, particularly eloquent on the subject. The political truce lasted for three days. Then it was back to the old ways with redoubled vigour. I could have told Mr Marr that at the time. Mr Tony Blair proved himself to be an almost complete master of political abuse, from his accession in 1994 to his departure last year. I insert the qualifying "almost" because, at the beginning of his term, he seemed momentarily discomposed by Mr William Hague.

The reason was that Mr Hague was able to make jokes at his expense. What they were I have now forgotten, but I remember other people laughing at the time. A smile may have crossed my own lips. Mr Blair was quite prepared to join in too.

Mr Brown does not make jokes. He likes it even less when jokes are made at his expense. Admittedly there was a period, a few months ago now, when Dr Vince Cable had a run of form with Mr Brown as the subject. And the subject in question managed to screw his face up into the semblance of a smile, just to show he was a good sport after all. But you could see his heart was not in it.

Wilson's sense of humour was the result of enormously hard work, Herculean exertions of mind and spirit. Mr Brown would not be able – would not want – to make the effort. Mr Blair was a natural actor. And Callaghan was good-humoured, even if that quality was more for display in public than it was for demonstration in more private moments. As a public performer, however, Mr Brown is the least convincing of the four Labour Prime Ministers who have held office since 1964.

Moreover, he is increasingly incapable of giving a straight answer. The other three – Wilson, Callaghan, Blair – were no mean hands, either, at deviating from the straight and narrow when it suited their purposes so to do. But Mr Brown made a business out of trying to be straightforward: a ludicrous enough claim, in view of his 10 years at the Treasury, but that was the claim his friends made constantly on his behalf.

In the House on Wednesday he chose to issue a flat denial of what the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Ms Wendy Alexander, had said during the previous weekend. She and her party had called for a referendum on Scottish independence to be brought forward in time, in contravention of the policy of the ruling Scottish National Party, of the Westminster Government and, not least, of Mr Brown.

The merits of the case need not concern us at this stage, if they ever do. The pattern of politics for nearly 40 years has been for the participants to engage in ferocious disputes about whether to have a referendum on this, that or the other. Sometimes it comes about; more often than not, it sinks into the sands. I have lost count of the referendums that Mr Blair promised, from Europe in its several aspects to electoral reform.

Mr Brown is at least not promising a referendum on Scotland, not at the moment anyway. Ms Alexander takes the opposite line, as she has made abundantly clear in several interviews, endlessly repeated. Why then should Mr Brown seek to deceive not only himself but the rest of us?

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