What Canada can teach Gordon

by Stephen Tall on January 25, 2006

I don’t suppose the thought of Canada keeps many of us awake at night; it’s hard for your slumbers to be too disturbed by the land of peace, order and good government.

But Gordon Brown might just have watched recent events in the Great White North with the slightest twinge of foreboding – in the same way that John Major must have pondered the significance of Canada’s Progressive Conservatives being reduced from 169 to just two seats in the 1993 Liberal landslide, some four years prior to his ejection from office.

The electorate’s overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives – their worst election defeat in history – ushered in the 10-year rule of Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. He resigned just over two years ago following allegations of financial corruption that rather put Mr Oaten’s ‘scandalous’ local difficulties in the shade.

Mr Chrétien was succeeded by his finance minister, Paul Martin, whose diligent management of the economy won him much acclaim. On his watch, Canada has achieved the fastest growth of any of the G8 countries for five years, resulting in its lowest unemployment for 30 years, big gains in incomes, profits and tax revenues, and consistent surpluses both in its federal budgets and in its trade and current accounts.

Yet the Canadian voters today sent Mr Martin and his Liberal Party packing: they won only 103 of the 308 seats up for grabs. (The voters can be very ungrateful, Gordon.) He will be succeeded by Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, who, with 124 seats, will now have the tricky task of leading a minority government reliant on the Bloc Québécois. Mr Martin had attempted to taint his opponent as Canada’s version of George W Bush – a slur Mr Harper batted away, while using his victory speech “to assure the public he is a moderate sort of chap who believes his opponents, despite a relatively bitter campaign, are really swell fellows” (Economist, 24th Jan 2006).

I won’t labour the analogy. Mr Brown is not Mr Martin; Mr Harper is not Mr Cameron; and the Lib Dems are most certainly not the Bloc Québécois (no matter which candidate becomes leader). History never repeats itself, and certainly not across the divide of an ocean.

Yet Mr Martin’s swift despatch from his country’s top job does point up the difficulties inherent in attempting to freshen up a stale government. Mr Brown is, after all, a familiar face: he remains an enigma, but lacks the mystique of novelty. Sure, we can expect his premiership to give the Government an opinion poll bounce – doubtless he will already have carefully devised a series of policy announcements designed to show he is every bit as New Labour as Tony Blair is, while stressing his commitment to social justice perhaps a little more passionately than the current Prime Minister does.

But he will have more hurdles to clear than Mr Cameron, or indeed than whoever is Lib Dem leader by then. First, he will be the only one of the party leaders not to have been elected on the basis of one-member-one-vote; regardless of whether he is the sole candidate, Mr Brown is assured the leadership because he has the trade union block vote sewn up. How will the Labour Party’s Banana Republic internal democracy play in modern Britain?

Secondly, Mr Brown’s natural countenance is not what one might term sunny. His dour, Presbyterian, stentorian brooding will contrast sharply with Mr Cameron’s canny self-projection as an open, cheerful, optimistic figure of the future.

And, thirdly, Mr Brown will no longer have anywhere to hide. He will have to speak out on a range of issues, and to do so he will need the voice of Everyman: Mr Blair has it more or less pitch perfect. Mr Brown does not. (This is why the Labour Party still does not appreciate fully how good is its current leader, and has no idea how badly they will miss him when he’s gone.)

As I wrote back in March:

“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. … 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.”

Mr Brown’s interview in The Sun (where else?) lauding the Prime Minister’s education reforms – “I cannot be stronger about the importance I attach to this reform programme and the link between education and the economy” – suggests the Chancellor is beginning to understand the need to poke his head above the parapet, precisely because he needs the unreconstructed Old Labour left to take pot shots at him, and so prove to ‘middle England’ that they can trust him as Prime Minister.

Canada’s election results do not mean that Mr Brown must follow where Mr Martin has failed. But they do point to the challenges he faces in taking over a third term Government running out of ideas and money, with a cabinet remarkably light on intellect or ideology or talent, and a resurgent Conservative Party whose leader is determined to neutralise its most pungent extremism.

I have glibly remarked in the past that Mr Brown’s destiny is to lose the only election he fights as Labour leader. Such a fate looks far more likely now than it did six months ago.