• A Brown Study

    The following article by Bryan Gould appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 21 September

    The first two months must have been very heaven. The long-awaited prize had been grasped. Opposition from both within and without had faded away. A long period at Number Ten seemed assured.
    The voters seemed to like the new leader. They liked his plain-speaking and the absence of spin. They liked his re-statement of basic values and his robust defence of the national interest. Most of all, they liked the fact that he was not Tony Blair.
    So, one month later, how have we arrived at the 7% Conservative lead in today’s poll? Is Gordon Brown on track to join the ranks of those Prime Ministers who were never granted an electoral mandate because they fell at the first electoral hurdle?
    The first and partial answer is that it may be premature to ask these questions. The “Brown bounce” was always going to be short-lived. There was always going to be an audible thud as the polls came back to earth. What matters now is what will happen over the next eighteen months, and the current volatility of the polls (something to which David Cameron is himself no stranger) tells us little that we need to know.
    None of this means that Gordon has not compounded his problems by making avoidable errors. He has lacked a sure touch in presenting policy and in Parliament. He has appeared to contradict his declared distaste of spin. And he made a serious mistake in handling the issue of an early election – a mistake that suggests that there is behind the appearance of iron resolve a much less certain political calculator.
    A more confident leader might well have gone for the kill in the period leading up to the conference season. He could have argued with some justice that he was unwilling to serve for long without a full mandate for a Brown premiership, and that the voters deserved the chance to say whether they wanted him or not. He could have launched an election campaign from the top of the “Brown bounce”. And he could have denied David Cameron the chance to make a life-saving conference speech.
    But to concentrate on these immediate mistakes does not explain the speed and scale of the decline in Gordon Brown’s standing. There are other, deeper factors at work – contextual elements that, unlike those with a short life, such as a conference speech or a mistake in presentation, are likely to influence events for some time to come.
    First, there were always going to be elements of the poison chalice about Tony Blair’s legacy to Gordon Brown. We should not forget (and nor should the Blairites) that Tony left office, not because he wanted to, but because his party saw him increasingly as an electoral liability. Glad of a change, intrigued by a new face (or at least a familiar face in a new context), the voters were always going to recall before too long that Gordon had been a centrally important figure in the Blair government. Its failings were his as well.
    Gordon knew this, too, but foreknowledge made the problem no easier to resolve. He could go just so far in drawing a line under the Blair legacy, and trying to distance himself from its more unpopular aspects. If he went too far, he would provoke several unwelcome responses.
    The first would be the predictable question – if you were at odds with this or that policy, why did you not say so at the time? More damagingly, a break with the Blair record in government would prompt a damaging counter-attack from the still powerful guardians of the New Labour project.
    And so it has turned out, and in a much shorter time than even Gordon’s enemies must have planned or hoped for. No sooner had Blairite spokespeople like Peter Mandelson declared that their long-nurtured hostility to a Brown premiership had ended than hostilities were resumed – and with a vengeance.
    The all-too familiar off-the-record briefing is suddenly in full swing. Unnamed “insiders” warn darkly that they always knew that Gordon’s personal and political deficiencies meant that he would falter sooner rather than later. For the first time in years, we are now made privy to leaks from around the Cabinet table, designed to show that Gordon’s colleagues are unhappy. Blairite ex-Ministers proclaim their readiness, in effect, to campaign against the new leader. As we know, the voters hate to see division and infighting – and they look like getting it in spades.
    Why has this happened? It is partly a matter of personal pay-back. The price is being paid for those brooding years at the Treasury, when the hint of an anti-Blair conspiracy was often in the air. But it may also be that there are issues of real political substance in play. The Blair government drew its strength only reluctantly from its democratic mandate, still less from the Labour party. Its main pillars of support were always Washington and the Murdoch press.
    Any change of policy that Gordon Brown may wish to make would cause him real problems if it provoked an adverse reaction from these powerful allies. So, even a phased withdrawal from Iraq may be seen as unacceptable. Even the most careful hint of a slight move to the left, or at least towards traditional Labour values, might ring some alarm bells. The Blairite counter-attack may not be made in the interests of its front-men alone.
    As it is, there is no quick victory – just the long haul. But the long haul – like the electoral arithmetic – may work to Gordon Brown’s advantage. He has time to get the balance right between acknowledging and distancing himself from the Blair legacy. He has time to confound his internal enemies by using the power of patronage and reminding his party of the electorate’s intolerance of disunity. He has time for the voters to understand and value his sterling qualities, and to turn his quintessential Britishness and love of his country to political advantage.
    Above all, he has time to stop paying so much attention to “advisers” and to trust his own judgment. Today’s poll means that the campaign for the next election is only just beginning.
    Bryan Gould
    15 October 2007