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Can Brown do a Major?

It’s a measure of how serious things have become for Gordon Brown that people are now comparing him to the former Tory Prime Minister, John Major – if he’s lucky. Like Brown, Major inherited a demoralised party from a highly charismatic leader, Margaret Thatcher. He also inherited a housing crash and an economic recession, but somehow Major still managed to win the 1992 general election. Labour MPs and some commentators believe that Brown may be able to do the same.

It would be unwise to bank on history repeating itself, however. It’s hard to see Gordon getting up on his soap box – as Major did during the 1992 election – and winning southern voters over by direct face-to-face appeals. English voters do not warm to Gordon Brown in the way many of them did to the Pooterish Major. Something to do with the PM’s Scottishness, perhaps, or his somewhat gloomy presence.

Gordon Brown has always been a somewhat shambolic individual who dresses like an unmade bed, but now he is getting the reputation of a bumbler. A prime minister who gets lost in Windsor Castle on his way to the state banquet; who last week reportedly got stuck while trying to get into wrong entrance to the room where he was to address Labour MPs. Brown has reportedly hired a former BBC producer, Nicola Burdett, to stop the gaffes and make him look better on TV. Yes, a gaffe Czar – you couldn’t make it up.

But something clearly has to be done. Yet another opinion poll at the weekend, the fourth since the Budget, suggests that the Conservatives now have a double digit lead in UK voting intentions over Labour. ICM in the Sunday Telegraph put David Cameron’s party on 43% and Labour on 32%. This is no mere blip, and indicates that there has been a widespread reassessment of Labour by English voters. (The Scottish political picture is of course different.)

On these figures, Labour has already lost, and Cameron would be Prime Minister in 2009/10 with a comfortable majority. Most commentators – this one included – still have difficulty seeing Cameron actually making it to Number Ten in one bound. However, the likelihood must be that Brown will lose his sixty odd seat majority and find himself having to do a deal with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.

A Westminster coalition might be a good thing for British politics, since it would likely bring about a change in our electoral system and the introduction of fair voting at Westminster elections. PR would be one of the Liberal Democrat’s conditions for any coalition deal, and the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, has recently been making positive noises about electoral reform, just in case. But this is small consolation for Gordon Brown who would go down in history as the man who gave up on Labour winning an outright majority in Westminster ever again.

So, has the Labour leader got what it takes to avert this electoral disaster? Can he do a Major? Well, the trouble is that Gordon Brown has been alienating an awful lot of people recently. The Prime Minister seems to have had a political personality transplant somewhere on the way to Number Ten. Even those who disagreed with him politically respected Brown of old as a Labour conviction politician who would put an end to the shallow glitz, sleaze and spin of the Blair years. But he seems to be carrying on exactly where his predecessor left off, albeit without the style. The leader who promised an end to celebrity politics has surrounded himself with highly-paid image consultants and PR people like Steven Carter his new strategy chief.

We all thought that at least Gordon Brown would be more resolute: clearer where he stood on the great issues of the day, like Iraq, tax, the economy, detention and terror. But he hasn’t been; he has been all over the place. The Labour MP for Ipswich Chris Mole, put his finger on it last week when told Brown: “no one knows who you are”.
This PM has turned dither and drift into a political art form. It started with the election-that-never was last October; then there was the confusion about whether and when he was going to go to Lisbon to sign the EU Treaty; which shaded into Northern Rock. We thought he was clear on on withdrawal from the Iraq war – but are we in or out of Basra? I don’t know, and I don’t think Number Ten does either.

More recently there was the dither over the free vote on the embryology bill; over 42 day detention, over cannabis reclassification, over whether or not to meet the Dalai Lama. The scrapping of the 10p tax band seemed like a fiscal technicality but it has ignited a mini rebellion among Labour MPs who feel that increasing taxes on some of the lowest paid workers in the country is just a little unfair at a time when even hedge-fund managers are saying that the wealthy should contribute more.

There has also been a revolt over the alcohol tax increases in the Budget- not by the SNP leader Alex Salmond, but from one of Brown’s own ministers, Gerry Suttcliffe, who said the government should change its mind. Word has now gone out from the Labour whips’office that Brown is going to crack down on dissidents, but it will be difficult for him to demand discipline when he is so manifestly unsure of his own mind. If the Prime Minister doesn’t keep to the script, how can he expect his ministers to do so?

The myth of Brown’s iron resolution has been blown by his recent vacillation. The fear has gone. It is difficult to respect a leader who flirts with daft ideas like getting young people to swear oath of allegiance to the Queen and the UK, or getting secondary schools in England and Wales to set up military cadet corps with military drills and weapons training. The idea of teaching teenagers to shoot when gun crime is such a serious inner-city problem sounds like something out of Little Britain.

Now John Major, of course, was also something of a figure of fun. His grey image and his alleged partiality for peas was mercilessly lampooned by the television programme Spitting Image. The cartoonists are only now forming their opinion of ‘Brown the gaffer’. But little was expected of Major; Brown has lost respect for promising change and then delivering a duller version of Blair. Oh, and on final thing: David Cameron isn’t Neil Kinnock.

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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