Steve Richards: Gordon Brown is like a conjuror whose tricks don't seem to work any more

Since taking office, the PM has ended up on the wrong side of almost every chosen argument

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:21

Do not expect any celebrations as Gordon Brown reaches the end of his first year in power this Friday. When I asked a Downing Street insider whether there were plans to commemorate the anniversary, he insisted it would be business as normal. After a pause he added: "Which probably means something will go wrong".

At least on this matter, Downing Street and the outside world are at one. There is consensus that a lot has "gone wrong" over the last 12 months. No one could claim otherwise unless they were living on another planet. For Labour, the polls are terrible. They feed on themselves, diminishing Brown's self-confidence and reinforcing an impression of a doomed government.

The question Labour must ask itself, and in various forms is doing so with an agonised urgency, is the degree to which their leader is responsible for the slump in support. How much would have "gone wrong" under any leader? How much is down to the leadership of Brown?

To a limited extent, we can answer the questions definitively. Labour has been losing support for a long time, not just since Brown took over. Disillusionment was fairly widespread as early as the 2001 election and was only disguised by the hopelessness of the opposition. It has intensified since. Before Brown took over as Prime Minister, Labour performed badly in two sets of local elections, last year and in 2006. We also know that currently leaders across the western world are suffering as a result of the economic gloom.

But there is not much mileage for Brown to argue that he is sinking in the company of other world leaders. For years Brown ached to be Prime Minister. Journalists were briefed about his principled disapproval of Blairite triangulation, his sense of radical purpose that could be achieved only when he was in No. 10 and how only he could bring about a vote-winning progressive consensus. The overt yearning for the job makes those bleak poll ratings more damning now.

In fairness to Brown, his political inheritance a year ago was more difficult than it looked – as daunting as the one faced by Margaret Thatcher's miserable, bewildered successors. He had the task of representing continuity and change, of not ditching the Blairite past and yet moving away from it. In addition, he needed to appear fresh, having been a hugely dominant figure in British politics for more than a decade.

At first, he pulled off the conjuring trick, subtly re-defining what it meant to be a "radical reformer" of public services while remaining an almost apolitical national leader, a Brownite, Blairite, Thatcherite figure rolled into one. But there was only a limited time that a leader could or should perform the unhealthy contortions required for such a conjuring trick.

Originally, Brown had calculated that he would hold an election in May of this year. Then he became tempted by the even earlier election. The magician had been too successful. Too quickly, his popularity became fatally stratospheric.

The early election fiasco was a catastrophe because it blew to pieces his entire strategy, removing his own preferred option of an election this year. Now he must stagger on to the very end of a parliament, in itself a sign of weakness. In such circumstances he cannot be a Brownite/ Blairite/Thatcherite with a deliberately opaque message for another two years, although weakly he shows every sign of trying.

This is where Brown is directly culpable for what has gone wrong. He has had very limited space over the last year and he has used it in a particular way, attempting to position himself and his government on the popular side of an argument and to unsettle the Tories or expose their divisions. Perversely, in each case he has ended up on the wrong side of virtually every chosen argument, and the Tories soar in the polls.

The recent furore over 42 days is the most obvious and vivid example. The politics of it do not work for Brown. His stance alienates liberal opinion, which he desperately needs to win back, and secures the fleeting approval of many who will not vote Labour in a thousand years, and certainly not at the next election. There are plenty of other examples.

After the 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax, Brown pointed out with mischievous pride that he had achieved one of Mrs Thatcher's objectives. Few listened, and those who did wondered whether this was why he had wanted to be in No.10 so much. The same thoughts will apply to quite a few Labour MPs tomorrow when they vote against the provisions in the planning bill that set up a new, non-elected commission with powers to rush through the introduction of major infrastructure projects, another move aimed partly at pleasing businesses and wrong-footing the Tories.

In each case, the arguments and motivations are complex. The balance between security and protection requires constant reassessment. There was a strong case for abolishing the 10p tax band and targeting resources more effectively. The planning system must be speeded up if we want big infrastructure projects to get off the ground before we are all dead. And yet political positioning played a big part and the government is not in a stronger position as a result. Suddenly Brown is a conjuror who finds the old tricks do not work any more.

The obsessive desire to win popular support before acting on any front explains the disastrous perception that Brown is a ditherer. It is an accusation made by frustrated ministers awaiting decisions as much as by his tormentors in the media. Again, the reality is more complicated. Having watched him closely for years, I am convinced Brown has at least as clear a sense of what he would like to do as any internal or external rival. His aspirations are implicit in a speech he delivered yesterday on social mobility:

"In education, the family you are born into is still the best predictor of the exam results you achieve. In employment, millions of adults still do not have the skills they need to make progress in their working lives. In health, the place where you were born still determines how long you will live. And in housing, your parents' wealth still makes a great difference to your chances of getting on the housing ladder."

For more than a decade he has sought to address such inequalities but his obsession with acting only when left and right are squared leads to paralysis. Even some of his closest supporters fume that the editor of the Daily Mail hovers over every decision. No wonder there are delays.

There is much over which Brown can do little in the current gloom, but a fearless clarity of purpose over a few big issues would address the off-beam assaults that he stands for nothing and cannot decide anything. It might not be enough to save him, but if he is to sink, he might as well do so for what he is rather than for what he is not.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments