“At Downing St upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t Blair. He wasn’t Blair again today. Oh how I wish he’d go away.” So read the mystery quatrain, allegedly penned by a disgruntled cabinet minister, which circulated Westminster last week.
The verse is a paraphrase of the American poet Hughes Mearns’ Antigonish, “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there…”.
Now, this isn’t the first time that Brown has been hit by a rocket-propelled stanza. T S Eliot’s poem “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” has been widely used by the Prime Minister’s critics. Both poems relate to the Prime Minister’s tendency to absent himself when things are going wrong. “Macavity’s not there”.
Obviously, this is all just dodgy doggerel, but humour has a knack of revealing truth. For the image of Gordon Brown now becoming fixed in the public mind, and reflected in these poems, is that of a politician who cannot face up to adversity. The truth is that Brown does absent himself from difficulties. He went to ground during the Northern Rock debacle, and he has gone to ground again over the current and related credit crunch.
What has the Prime Minister had to say of any significance about the crisis? Nothing that I can recall. Can it really be that the man who presided over the British economy with such apparent success for over a decade, who is lauded as the best Chancellor in a hundred years, now has nothing to say about what the greatest financial crisis since the Second World War? Apparently, because he wasn’t there again last week.
One suspects that Tony Blair, like him or loathe him, would at least have been out there calming fears and dispelling rumours. Challenging irresponsible city traders; raising questions about the behaviour of the banks and why we should bail them out. He would have had a soundbite, even if it was. “When the whorehouse burns down, it’s not just the pimps who perish.” Okay, maybe not that one.
He might not have done a great deal of good, but it would at least have given the voting public an impression that someone was thinking about it all, that there was someone looking after our interests. But Brown’s policy, as always, is to keep his face out of the papers and the bulletins during a crisis so as not to be contaminated by bad news. It’s what he does.
But the problem with presentational absenteeism is that it is a lot harder for a prime minister to hide than a chancellor. Before, Brown could bury himself in the treasury whenever Tony Blair was getting into a mess over party funding, foreign wars, NHS cock ups. Not any more. He is on display at Question Time week on week, and he is looking ragged, exhausted, clapped out.
Now appearances aren’t everything of course. A few bags under they eyes are expect in a leader – a price worth paying for the privilege of being Prime Minister. However, increasingly, Gordon Brown looks like a loser, and David Cameron is getting the better of him week by week – much as Blair succeeded in ridiculing the Tory MP John Major.
The truth is that this government is in the midst of a severe downturn. Brown is suffering his own credit crunch in the form of falling poll ratings. The latest YouGov survey has the Tories in the lead by in any UK election by 16 points (43 – 27) and ICM last week gave David Cameron’s party a 13 point lead (42 – 29). These are very serious numbers and indicate that turbulence in political allegiances in Britain is just as serious as turbulence in the markets. People are looking at Brown harder than ever and not liking what they see. He is not their Easter Bunny.
We are so used to thinking the Tories are the party of no return that we are perhaps failing to recognise that they are making a serious comeback. The Labour Party is demoralised and uncertain about its political future. The atmosphere on the government benches is gloomy and negative, and there is turmoil in the Prime Minister’s private office, with the departure of his close aide of 10 years, Spencer Livermore.
He found life under Brown’s new chief of staff -the public relations expert Stephen Carter – less than congenial. Brown is surrounding himself with people who made their names in advertising, David Muir, and investment banking, Jennifer Moses, rather than in Labour politics, which is why some are talking about a Tory take-over in Number Ten. But this leadership requires more than a PR face lift. Labour has lost 4 million votes since 1997 and it will not be easy to get them back.
The problem is that people don’t know what Labour stands for anymore, under Brown. The widely expected return to more traditional Labour values never happened. Indeed, Brown has been even more neo-liberal than his predecessor, pressing ahead with public sector reform, cutting inheritance tax, blocking attempts to curb the non doms tax avoidance. Ministers like John Hutton have been free to call for rich people to be “celebrated” just at the moment when the the rich have plunged the world into an economic crisis.
Brown has pushed ahead with terrorist detention; has joined with France to lead a global revival of nuclear power. He could have used the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war last week to try to draw a line under Britain’s greatest foreign policy disaster in half a century. But he hasn’t apologised for the war, or indicated any new strategy for getting out of it, other than the retreat by stealth. He certainly hasn’t tried to give us any vision of world affairs post Iraq – a new philosophy of international relations following the collapse of American neo-imperialism.
It’s just non-business as usual – wittering on about a “national risk register”; maybe meeting the Dalai Lama of Tibet but only if it doesn’t upset the Chinese; dithering over a free vote on the Embryology Bill. Say what you like about Tony Blair, but he did at least make decisions, and he tried to give an account of the world in which he made them. May have been the wrong decisions, but – as he always said – at least he made them. The danger is that Brown appears to be a passive victim of events rather than the master of them. That is not a credible attitude for a Prime Minister, who must at all times be visible and proactive.
Brown was supposed to be the keeper of the soul of Labour; he has turned out to be just another desperate politician surrounding himself with “brand” managers like to sell the political vision he doesn’t have.
But wait. What’s this? A new mystery poem has landed in my in box. “As I was going to the polls, I met a man who hadn’t balls. I hope he comes again this way. so I can say he’s had his day.