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He bottled it

Not flash, just rattled. The great dither turned into a wobble in the middle of last week as the polls turned nasty and gobbled up Gordon’s margin of error. Suddenly, the idea of an early general election looked less and less attractive, and the Labour briefing squad took flight like a flock of pigeons after a firework. By Saturday morning it was all over.

The Great Man looks diminished this weekend, like a gambler whose bluff has been called. His popularity has been shown to be fragile, his authority is undermined, his integrity suddenly under question. It was Brown who cynically allowed the election speculation to intensify as a means of destabilising the Tories, but now that he has called it all off, Gordon Brown is the one who is looking unstable.

All he has done is demonstrate to the country that he can be beaten, and that will hang over this prime minister for the rest of his premiership. The Tory leader, David Cameron, can plausibly claim to have won this “phoney’ election. And it’s no good Brown saying that the speculation was not his doing. He could have ended it whenever he wanted to, but the reality is that Brown only pulled the plugs on this election when the opinion polls told him that he might lose it.

The turning point in public sentiment appears to have been Brown’s ill-judged mid week jaunt to Iraq, and the announcement of a withdrawal of a thousand troops, both of which have been held up as examples of the spin politics Gordon promised to end. The pictures of our Gord supporting Our Boys certainly looked like a crude attempt to upstage David Cameron’s speech to the Tory Party conference. It also transpired that half the troops Brown said were “coming home for Christmas” had already returned to Blighty, making this look like another of those double accounting wheezes Brown used to use to massage the spending figures back in the Nineties.

Brown had been spinning like mad on the home front for months, with his meetings with Maggie, his dog whistles on immigration and crime, his Macavity act during the Northern Rock debacle. People have come to expect that Brown will do whatever it takes to get a good headline, preferably in the Daily Mail, and to wrong-foot his opponents. So when he popped up in Basra, just as Dave was warming up, everyone naturally assumed that Broon was playing politics again.

But I think Gordon Brown’s mistake was rather more fundamental than merely one of spin. In a real sense he provided the platform on which David Cameron was able to make his appeal to middle England last week. Brown’s attempt to steal the Tories’ clothes in his own conference was, as this column argued last week, well over the top. Indeed, it wasn’t just over the top, but across no man’s land and into the opposition trenches. Brown handed the Conservatives most of the ammunition they fired back at him by turning his own Labour conference into an exercise in neo-Thatcherism, complete with “British jobs for British workers”, ciminal immigrants and have-a-go-heroes. I don’t think they’ve realised it yet, but under Gordon Brown, it is Labour who risk becoming the nasty party.

Adopting Tory themes was supposed to be a clever ruse to force the Tories into taking more extreme positions on the right. They obliged by axing inheritance tax to millionaires and penalising single parents; They promised to cut immigration, further privatise the NHS, end early release for prisoners and cut corporation tax in the near future. However, these announcements were all lost in the small print of a party conference in which the Conservatives were able to appear relatively moderate, compared to Gordon’s conference freak show.

Cameron’s soft focus speech on Wednesday, delivered without notes or bombast, was a brilliant stylistic riposte to Brown’s strongman posturing of the week before. Modern politics is all about authenticity, and speaking off the cuff is a good way of suggesting, first that you are your own man and not the product of speechwriters and focus groups, and second that you are not afraid to look people in the eye, level with them. I suspect all leader’s speeches will in future have to be delivered without autocue, so effective was Cameron’s effort. Didn’t really matter what he said, which was pretty bland and unoriginal, the point was that he came over as real.

When the voters find it impossible to distinguish between the two parties on policy, style becomes crucially important. Brown’s speech, with its endless repetition of “Britishness”, its “moral compasses”, its Bible bashing and the phrases lifted from American politicians like Al Gore, was in the proper sense of the word, “clunking”. Crude, unsubtle, leaden. Cameron came on and showed that he was light on his feet, intelligent and capable of warmth and sincerity – like Blair before Iraq and cash for honours. Voters sat back and considered, for the first time, whether they really liked Gordon Brown after all.

The boost in the polls after Cameron’s speech was expected, but not on this scale. The ICM/Guardian poll on Thursday night showing Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 38% sent a shock through the entire Labour movement. The thought that Brown might come back a lame duck leader with a reduced majority, after an election that he need never have called, was just too horrible to contemplate. Bottling it might mean a loss of face, but at least it would be better than being bottled by the electorate.

Reports from the marginal seats in England confirmed the view that the Tory leader had done something pretty impressive. By raising the threshold of inheritance tax he had finally convinced his party that, despite upsets over grammar schools, he really was “one of us”. Labour MPs started phoning in to Number Ten saying that an early poll didn’t look such a good idea after all.

This whole sorry exercise has been damaging to Labour and to Brown personally. He has held the nation in suspense for the last two months, antagonising voters and undermining his reputation for prudence. He has played politics and lost. Instead of using his authority and freshness to renew Labour as the party of the progressive Left, he grabbed the Tory clothes for short term electoral gain – but it didn’t work.

Brown could have used his first conference to emphasise the humane face of Labour, and shown his own humility in the process. Why did he leave it to the Tories to take the initiative over non-tax paying, non-dom billionaires? Brown could have introduced policies like ending means-testing for pensioners or abolishing tax breaks to buy to let landlords which would have reconnected with the broad social democratic mainstream.

Brown could have used his honeymoon to show the irrelevance of the Conservatives to the modern world; instead he flattered them by imitation. I don’t know what it is about Labour politicians, but as soon as they enter Downing St they seem to have a personality transplant. Brown has shown that he isn’t flash, but he isn’t Gordon either.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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