Will the real Mr Brown please stand up?

by Stephen Tall on March 20, 2005

Just how does Gordon Brown get away with it? And, no, I don’t mean the budget. Our stern Chancellor has sky-high popularity ratings. Fiscal conservatives and soft-left socialists find common cause in their admiration of his reign at No 11, and, according to a YouGov poll in last week’s Telegraph, 61% of us think he’s doing a good job as Chancellor, and 40% would prefer him as Prime Minister to Tony Blair. So what’s his secret? How does he achieve such stellar ratings?

There are two principal reasons. First (and probably foremost), is that he has been a good Chancellor, a sound pair of hands, an intellectual giant in a cabinet of cerebral pygmies. Of course, the UK’s recent economic success is not down solely to Mr Brown’s brilliance, as he would be the last to admit.

When Mr Brown boasts of the UK’s 50 successive quarters of economic growth, the longest since records began in 1701, he neglects to mention the first 19 occurred under Tory rule. And that the economy is in such rude health just now is primarily the result of Labour’s biggest and best outsourcing decision – when the Bank of England was granted its independence in 1997.

The second is that, were it not for the chronological impossibility, one would assume TS Eliot’s feline creation, Macavity the Mystery Cat, is based on the current Treasury tenant. Ponder these lines and consider our grumpy, unkempt, dour Chancellor:

‘his eyes are sunken in. / His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed; / His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.’

Let’s leave aside the physical congruities, though. Mr Brown’s dual identity is exposed by the refrain:

‘when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!’

This has long been the complaint from Blairites in Labour’s ranks. Probably the three most controversial episodes in Labour’s recent history have been the illegal war against (sorry, liberation of) Iraq; the introduction of university tuition and top-up fees; and cuts to disability benefits.

In all three cases, when the fireworks exploded in the Government’s hands, Mr Brown was not there. Although he voted for each – and indeed reforms of higher education and social security finances were Treasury policies – Mr Brown allowed the sullen insinuation to gain currency that he was decidedly luke-warm about all these garbage policies emanating from Mr Blair. “If only I were Prime Minister!” Mr Brown sulkily shrills, the cry so high-pitched that only ‘attack dogs’ can hear it.

Though Mr Blair is, constitutionally, First Lord of the Treasury, it is clear Mr Brown sees things a mite differently. The tension and rivalry which crackles between these two formidable politicians – the TB-GBs as Westminster observers have termed it – is no longer latent: it is blatant. Their private jealousies became public property at last week’s unveiling of Labour’s infamous ‘£35bn Tory cuts’ poster. The Independent’s sketch-writer, Simon Carr, captured the scene:

‘… one of the journalists was ITV’s Nick Robinson, who isn’t as cuddly as he looks. With the field to himself, he pursued the Prime Minister in a single line of questioning. That is extremely rare. It was also extremely funny. The person who found it funniest was Gordon Brown. You rarely see a genuine smile in politics. Mr Brown struggled to suppress his, but eventually he gave in and let it beam. It was like the sun coming out.
‘Nick said: “Why do you persist in misrepresenting your opponents’ policies? You know they are saying they will increase spending but at a slower rate?”
‘”Actually, that is not what they’re saying,” the Prime Minister started, speaking more quickly to bring off the semantic three-card trick we now know so well.
‘”You can’t cut money that hasn’t been spent,” Nick said. “You’re alleging they’ll make cuts. But now you’re saying they’ll spend less. The words are different!”
‘”They’re not different,” the Prime Minister said urgently, stepping across Gordon’s grin. What a hound he is, our Prime Minister, when he’s on form. What he says may not be true but that’s not important. What is important is what works.
‘But – you could see the scary thought scribbling itself across the PM’s forehead – what if it doesn’t work any more? The very same thought was driving Mr Brown’s delighted smile.’

Well, good on Mr Robinson for asking Mr Blair some tough questions, but… Before we get carried away with the idea that this was yet another case of the PM spinning a yarn with scant regard for the truth, much to the discomfort of his high-minded Chancellor, it is worth considering who devised this line of attack. The Tory press presumed it was Labour’s campaign guru (or should that be gnu?), Alan Milburn, or, worse still, Alastair Campbell.

But the line which fuelled the controversy – that the Tories’ alleged £35bn cuts would be the “equivalent to sacking every teacher in the country, then sacking every GP in the country and then sacking every nurse” – is a Gordon Brown original. You can read it in his speech to Labour’s spring conference (12th February, 2005) here. I suspect the poster and press launch was his idea, which is why Mr Milburn was nowhere near the action.

So I would like to think the smile Mr Brown couldn’t hide was to cover the embarrassment that his über-hyped spin had backfired, and landed Tony right in it. But I somehow doubt it.

For the first few years of his leadership of the Labour Party, Mr Blair revelled in the soubriquet, ‘Mr Teflon’: no matter what muck his opponents flung at him, none of it stuck. In this regard, Mr Brown has displayed a deft knack for imitation, though I doubt Mr Blair is sincerely flattered. No matter what the Labour crimes, and no matter when they’re discovered, MacBrown’s not there. And it’s a tactic which can just about work when you’re the No 2 in British politics, able quietly to plot and skulk in the shadows.

But when Mr Brown becomes Prime Minister, a flashlight will be shone on his personality and his policies.

He will have to make decisions, unpopular ones, and defend them in public. He will no longer be able to use Mr Blair as a lightning rod to earth him from the electric shocks of political opponents’ attacks. Nor can he persist in his schizophrenic audience-pleasing. He will have to make choices: is he Atlanticist or socialist, pro-business or trade unionist, anti-European or progressive, liberal or authoritarian? For a man who’s been Chancellor for eight years, there are still an awful lot of unanswered questions.

Mr Brown is able, for now, to surf the tide of Mr Blair’s unpopularity. But Mr Brown cannot forever define himself by what he is not. At some point, and soon, he will need to show he understands that, to be Prime Minister, you need to be more than just clever, and that range is as important as depth.