Last week, a jet lagged Gordon Brown headed for the exit after question time, forgetting he had a statement to make on his trip to Pakistan. Oh how we laughed: ‘Brown to go…PM loses it… an.exit strategy at last”. He looked utterly exhausted, shattered. One hack said he was “like a drunk who can put on a fair impression of being sober until an empty gin bottle falls out of his pocket”. Hmm.
Now, I hope this doesn’t sound to mealy-mouthed, but I am beginning to get just a little uncomfortable with the hounding of Gordon Brown. Yes, I know: this column has been only too willing to join the hunt on occasion. And the Prime Minister has been very much the agent of his own misfortune recently – I mean, you just don’t take on Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas unless you’re absolutely sure your troops will hold the line.
But it isn’t pleasant to see a figure who used to be respected, certainly in Scotland, for his intellect and his integrity becoming a figure of tabloid ridicule and contempt. The Daily Mail ran a headline last week saying: “If Gordon Brown was a dog he’d be put down”. This venomous coverage is partly down to the influence of the blogosphere which has taken political ridicule into a new dimension. Everyone is falling over themselves to be cruel.
The Libdem finance spokesman,Vince Cable, famously described Brown as a cross between Stalin and Mr Bean, but that seems almost benign now that the PM routinely is portrayed as a bumbling sociopath, who can barely tie his own shoelaces and spends his time plotting nasty smears with sleazy chums. Or as the former Number Ten staffer, Matthew Tayolor put it: “digging holes to trap the opposition and then jumping into them”. Well, you can’t argue with that. Certainly his choice of friends leaves a lot to be desired, as the Damian McBride ‘smear-mails’ affair underlined.
Comparisons are being made with the dying days of John Major, the Tory Prime Minister in the 1990s, who became a cartoon character with his pants over his trousers and a peculiar fascination for peas. But Major was portrayed as an amiable and essentially harmless figure – a kind of political Chauncey Gardner, who’d somehow been mistaken for Prime Minister. Brown is seen as a ruthless control freak, a vicious party infighter, a humourless issuer of vainglorious five year plans. I don’t actually believe Brown relaxes by studying tractor production figures – he’s much more likely to be watching football. But the image has stuck.
And he can be certainly be accused of being preoccupied with tactics rather than strategy. The budget tax increases on the rich were seen as an attempt to wrong-foot posh David Cameron, rather than an attempt to revisit Labour’s fundamental egalitarian values. I don’t think there was any political subtext to the Gurkha defeat, which was simply a failure to read the public mood. Jacqui Smith, the beleaguered home secretary, is being blamed for not circulating concessions early enough to head off the revolt by Labour MPs. And the expenses fiasco was another old fashioned political own goal. Brown had tried to bounce parliament into accepting his pet scheme for flat-rate allowances, and it failed. He had to withdraw the crucial motion to avoid two defeats in one week. He just wasn’t on top of events, and now events are piling on top of him.
What happens now is fairly predictable, I fear. Labour MPs are getting a taste for rebellion, just as Tory MPs did under John Major in 1995-7. The fear is gone because the Prime Minister’s authority is gone. They sense that Brown is finished, and that they are too, so why bother toeing the line anymore? Current cabinet ministers are briefing against him, and will continue to do so. Former ministers, like David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, will seek attention by reprising their hand-wringing media interviews urging Brown to ‘up his game’. Clarke said he was “ashamed” to be in the Labour Party under Brown. There will be renewed muttering about Brown’s “psychological flaws”.
The European Elections in June are going to be a bloodbath. The opinion polls suggest a massive swing away from Labour, possibly mitigated by a very low turnout. The party is bracing itself for losses in the south to the British National Party, who will be standing on a platform of “British jobs for British workers” – a platform fashioned for them by Gordon Brown himself. How he must regret making that pledge to the Labour conference in 2007.
In June, Brown will try to draw a line under the euro losses by reshuffling his cabinet. Jacqui Smith is likely to go and possibly Blairite stalwart, Nick Brown. There have been rumours that John Reid, chairman of Celtic and former Labour cabinet minister, could be due for a political comeback, replacing Harriet Harman as party chairman. That would be a shock to the system,certainly, but it seems unlikely that Brown would bring yet another of his old enemies into his tent to join Peter Mandelson. Alistair Darling seems to have survived following his competent handling of the worst budget since the war.
The reshuffle will be dismissed as ‘deck-chairs on the Titanic’. However, the machinations might throw up a stalking horse candidate to stand against Brown at the party conference in October. The last time Brown was on death row Charles Clarke made clear that he could be persuaded, and he looks persuadable again. But with Labour MPs in their current enfeebled state, it seems unlikely that they’ll have the bottle to go for a change of leader in 2009. Most are just hanging on for the pension rights and to give them time to look for other jobs – not an easy task right now in the current depressed labour market. For the next twelve months, the commons is going to be rather like a job creation programme for politicians.
So, Gordon Brown shows every sign of hanging on to the bitter end, and losing to David Cameron in May 2010 – the only question is by how much. The Tories are 18% ahead in the latest Yougov poll, enough for a comfortable majority – though that could be cut to a few seats. As defeat looms Brown’s final task will be to place a poison pill in the Number Ten chalice to ensure that Cameron’s love affair with the voters is brief. People are already saying that this is a good general election to lose because whoever enters Number Ten faces years of cuts and tax increases. But there is one other consolation: defeat will at least put Gordon Brown out of his misery and allow him get a night’s sleep.