Perceiving Gordon Brown

by Stephen Tall on June 16, 2006

That perception is everything (or very nearly) is, I imagine, the most depressing canon for those actively involved in public life. It must be a thought that frequently troubles our Chancellor, and Premier-apparent, Gordon Brown.

Today’s thread over at poses the question, “What’s Gordon like under fire?” and observes that his likely assumption-without-challenge of the Labour leadership is a potentially dangerous prospect for his party:

If, as is his plan, he manages to move into the top job without having to go through the ardours of fighting a leadership election he will have managed to by-pass, yet again, situations where he would have faced fierce questioning.

At the time of the last Labour leadership election, Mr Brown avoided trial by media by declining to stand. He had read the writing on the wall. It is fascinating now to recall that, when, in May 1994, MORI asked the general public who they thought would be the best Labour leader, Mr Blair had the support of 32%, John Prescott 19%, Margaret Beckett 14%, Gordon Brown 9%, and Robin Cook 5%. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.

For all the controversy of the so-called ‘Granita Pact’, when Mr Blair and Mr Brown are supposed to have reached concord that Mr Blair would be the modernising candidate, there is one simple reason why Mr Brown sat on his hands: Mr Blair would have beaten him.

To understand why this was so, let me quote from Nicholas Jones’s excellent 1996 tome, Soundbites & Spin Doctors:

Aware of criticism that his delivery could be stilted and that he sometimes had a wooden appearance, Brown went to inordinate lengths to inject vitality into his answers. During a hectic round of interviews in the week of the 1992 autumn spending statement, a television studio technician observed the care with which he practised what was obviously the key sentence of his reply, repeating it a dozen times before deciding which words should get more emphasis. Such assiduity had its disadvantages: once he had memorised a soundbite, Brown had a tendency to keep repeating it whatever the subsequent questions. Some programme editors grew reluctant to accept his contributions, claiming they were predictable and repetitive. For a time, producers on the BBC’s One o‘Clock News were told to do their utmost to find other Labour voices: Brown was considered to have become over-exposed.

The appointment of Charlie Whelan as his press officer in January 1994 curbed the worst of Mr Brown’s media obsession. But John Smith’s untimely death triggered a leadership contest at the worst possible time for Mr Brown. As Mr Jones records:

… although [Mr Whelan] had gone some way towards repairing the damage to the shadow Chancellor’s reputation, the leadership contest reopened the debate about Brown’s addiction to soundbites. As the party started assessing the value of the likely contenders, there were powerful voices in the Labour hierarchy who said Brown was too lightweight to become leader.

A lightweight leader addicted to soundbites, eh? Up with that, Labour would never put. Perception, it seems, can indeed change.

Looking through posts on my website, and other political blogs, I’ve been struck by our collective disregard for the man who will be this country’s next Prime Minister. In contrast, screeds have been written about both Ming Campbell and David Cameron. Why this indifference?

First, Mr Brown’s brief is economic policy: much of it is, therefore, concerned with facts and figures: eminently disputable, frequently dull. The Chancellor’s best decision was his first: to declare the Bank of England independent.

By out-sourcing macro-economic policy at a stroke, he helped assure “the longest period of sustained economic growth in this country for over 200 years”. Interestingly, in the USA it is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank who gets the credit for such success: here we still praise the Chancellor.

Secondly, both Sir Menzies and Mr Cameron are new to the leaderships of their respective parties: that novelty makes what they have to say more interesting. Mr Brown’s speeches – though they range more widely than economic policy – can only hint at what his approach as Labour leader would be.

And, even then, most lefty Labour supporters appear to be living happily in a state of self-denial that the man who gave them PFI, the 75p pension increase, and tuition fees is a closet socialist.

By carefully absenting himself from the media during times of trouble, most notably the Iraq war, Mr Brown has allowed people to gaze into the blankness and see whatever they wish. While Mr Cameron says anything to anyone, Mr Brown says nothing to no-one. Both are building up expectations they are bound to disappoint.

The third reason why little heed is currently paid to Mr Brown is simple. I have written two articles devoted to Mr Brown – here and here – and I cannot think of anything more to say. Indeed, there is so little to say about Mr Brown that I see I was reduced in my second article to quoting a couple of paragraphs from my first article. They still stand:

… 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.

The danger for Mr Brown is that the perception of him as a dour, Presbyterian killjoy will stick when he becomes Prime Minister. The opportunity for Mr Brown is that the perception of him as a serious, experienced, successful politician (how different from Mr Cameron) might endure.

Two perceptions, two equal possibilities. The time of reckoning is near.