It is Gordon Brown's own political cowardice that will finally do him in
“It is time to cut him loose.”—Guardian editorial, June 3, 2009
Now even the Guardian has announced Gordon Brown should go. Is there any way back for him, except to rely on the political cowardice of those who must challenge him?
Before this week, that cowardice looked pretty reliable. Now his Cabinet is imploding and reshuffling itself before Gordon Brown can. Cabinet Minister Hazel Blears has committed a spectacular act of harakiri, combining the ending of her own Cabinet career, and a colossal one finger salute to her former boss, resigning before he sacked her. On the day of her seismic departure yesterday, the day before elections, she was seen wearing a brooch with the slogan “Rocking the boat”.
That boat now looks pretty low in the water. This week Labour will be humiliated in those European and local council elections, following various by-election humiliations. If, as is now highly possible, the Labour Cabinet finds the courage to turn against him next week, he would be reaping what he has sown.
I have never met Gordon Brown. I can only judge him by his public utterances and actions. I will not mourn his passing as Labour leader and Prime Minister—whether by now completely inevitable electoral doom, or at the hands of vengeful rivals. If one can summon the courage to lift the knife, there will be no shortage of hands to help.
This dour, serious and clearly brilliant son of the Presbyterian manse makes much of his “moral compass”.
Yes, he did lead the global rescue of the banking systems;
Yes, he has been a champion of more and better aid for Africa (though the merit of that is entirely debatable);
Yes, he did advocate reform of the Bretton Woods global financial establishment long before the current crisis made it fashionable;
Yes, he did preside over boom years of the British economy, and didn’t he endlessly claim credit for them. (My personal favourite being "longest period of sustained economic growth for more than 200 years"—Budget speech, March 2004)
For me, all those epic, big-picture achievements are undermined by the venality of the base politics he now embodies.
And even his reputation as an economic titan is now tarnished. It relied too long on one magnificent if obvious 1997 decision—granting independence to the Bank of England. And, as lucky politicians do, he rode a benign decade, and the shoulders of his predecessor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke.
Now his years of uninterrupted growth have been exposed as grotesquely dependent on financial services (around a third of the UK economy before The Crisis). Where are those obscene City bonuses now, and the tax bonanza they brought?
Surely most damningly, he boasted of eradicating “Tory boom and bust”. Has there been a worse bust than this being suffered by the British people now? Certainly it is the worst since the Conservative cataclysm of “Black Wednesday” 1992, when the pound was evicted from the European exchange rate mechanism, and the Tory reputation for economic management was destroyed for a generation.
Brown will bequeath his successor unemployment inching toward Thatcherite levels and record debt. Next year Britain will borrow £175 billion. £175 billion! That's nearly three times our entire GDP!
But it is his mastery of black politics, and his contrasting political tin ear, which fascinate me the most. Brown excelled in sending his outriders to do the dirty work of besmirching rivals, so that he was never seen at the crime. Most recently, one of his more distasteful lieutenants was forced out of Downing Street, for planning to invent sordid rumours which would then be supplied to a left-wing blogger. He's even dumped on Alastair Darling, his ever reliable Bill Birch or Trevor Mallard figure (without the fisticuffs).
To follow and report on British politics in the early- and mid-2000s was to digest an almost daily menu of anonymous bile, served up to favoured reporters by various appointed assassins of the Cabinet. It was and is a distasteful spectacle, which is thankfully far less in evidence here in New Zealand.
The endless spats of the “Brownites” and “Blairites” were rarely fought in the open, except for the annual jousting of rival Party Conference speeches. Gordon’s was always the day before Tony’s. He would tickle the tummies of the old Labour faithful, and make his usual veiled jibes at Blairism. The ‘will he do it?’ drums would beat. Then, every time, Tony would speak and even the ardent Tony-haters would remember that this is the guy who kept winning them elections (yes, even after Iraq).
Whatever your views on Tony Blair's politics, he was unquestionably a truly great communicator, able to reach out and tear the middle class away from the Tory grip. Brown seems only able to speak to his rapidly narrowing old Labour base—oh, and to economists. He famously referred to "post neo-classical endogenous growth theory" in a 1994 speech.
As a communicator, Brown is painful. Check out this classic, featuring him trying to smile: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBXj5l6ShpA
And on the simplest of domestic issues he seems deaf. He was very recently humiliated by Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas, and he was lamentably slow to grasp the depth and vehemence of the British public’s disgust over the expenses scandal.
But I believe it is Brown’s political cowardice which is his defining characteristic. In 1994 he bailed out of challenging Tony Blair for the Labour leadership. Instead, the two concocted a backroom deal in an Islington restaurant, and Brown has festered about it ever since.
In 2007, having finally inherited the Labour leadership and post of Prime Minister with not a single vote cast—by neither Party nor people—he clearly instructed his functionaries to stoke the fires of election fever. Yet, when it became apparent the polls were turning, he bottled it and bailed out again, spouting transparent nonsense that it was not the polls that provoked his decision. He might have won, destroyed David Cameron's Tory resurgence, and earned a personal mandate. Instead, he confirmed his own tragic flaw.
Gordon Brown will go—evicted by his party perhaps as soon as next week, or evicted by the British voters some time next year. The choice of date is Gordon Brown's, and be sure he will leave it as late as is humanly possible. My bet is he won't get that far.
He will leave public life as the unelected Leader, the unelected Prime Minister—the man who never won, and never lost an election. What could be worse for a politician?