How Mr Brown flunked his big moment

by Stephen Tall on March 23, 2007

For a little while now, I’ve felt Gordon Brown has been maligned. That’s not to say I agree with him – don’t be silly – merely to suggest he’s been under-estimated by armchair pundits. Mr Brown has been a formidable Chancellor, one of the two dominant politicians of his generation. To think that he might be bested by the smart glibness of David Cameron was, I felt, wishful thinking on behalf of his opponents.

Today, I’m less sure.

I still think it’s a rash commentator who writes off Mr Brown. The fairest assessment of the budget – stripped of all spin and counter-spin – is Hamish McRae’s verdict in the Indy. It deserves to be read in full, but here’s the conclusion:

… the fact remains that the British economy has performed remarkably well in the past decade. There are of course concerns, including the fact that it has become even more of a two-tier economy, with the super-competitive London, the South-east and East Anglia, and the rest. You could argue that he inherited this competitive advantage, that it had very little to do with him. You could argue that at the margin the additional complexity he has loaded on to the system has undermined some of that competitiveness. But he has understood intellectually how competitive advantage in the present global economy is achieved and sustained. I don’t think the next 10 years will be as easy as the past 10 but meanwhile he has a right to take some of the credit for what, in economic terms, has undoubtedly been a successful decade.

It’s an assessment most of us could sign up to, though perhaps lets Mr Brown off the hook a little too easily when it comes to public service investment: having starved the public sector in his early years, he then glutted it in his later years with scant regard to value-for-money. Billions have been wasted in the time it’s taken New Labour to understand that resources and reform go hand-in-hand. And still they try and control everything from the centre.

But still – Mr Brown has, by any objective standard, avoided disaster and achieved modest success. Few Chancellors can boast such a claim, let alone one who’s served a decade in the post, however impatiently.

To imagine that, having waited so long to ascend the premiership, Mr Brown won’t have a programme for government carefully devised – one which will be consciously and cleverly designed to take the wind out of puffed-out Tory sails – is to ignore the evidence of his past behaviour, from making the Bank of England independent to this week’s 2p basic rate income tax cut.

However, however, however.

Mr Brown screwed up his budget big time. He made a hash of it in a way which should disturb his fellow Labour MPs, and which gives those, like me, who have defended his tactical shrewdness, real pause for thought.

Let’s ignore the rights or wrongs of doubling the starting rate of income tax, while cutting the basic rate – a move which will leave many of the poorest in society poorer still. I think he made the wrong choice; but I’m a political opponent so I would say that, wouldn’t I. No, the worrying thing for Labour was how badly Mr Brown presented his budget coup de théâtre.

Simon Carr, again in the Indy, brilliantly contrasts Messrs Blair and Brown’s rhetoric and what their styles say about their respective personalities:

Blair’s personal style is a search for the best consensus he can make on his own terms. Thus his reaction to a hostile question is: “Where I agree with you is this.” This instinct has mutated in the aftermath of Iraq: “There are those who disagree with me and I don’t disrespect them for that,” he is inclined to say. It’s one of his attractive traits. His speeches, likewise, assume the presence of an intelligent interlocutor who disagrees with what is being said, and with whom Blair argues. You can sense the respect by the fact that the interlocutor isn’t presented as ridiculous or vicious. Why would he alienate half of the voting population?

Gordon Brown’s speeches reveal a very different internal process. There is no real interlocutor in his speeches. His view of the enemy (he views the Tories as enemies) reduces them to caricatures motivated by malice, cruelty and greed. No reasonable person would characterise half of the British electorate in those terms. But then, everything in the speech is Gordon: every portrait is a self portrait.

Yes, this sort of speech-making seems to be the direct result of his personal relations in professional life. Successful, argumentative, engaging speeches need more than one hand. They are a collaboration. They require that the speechmaker has the substance to hear his work criticised and chopped about. To have his ideas challenged and to accept the validity of other points of view. This is not the way the Chancellor operates, if recent reports be true. It is, as they say in the Civil Service, “outwith his grasp”.

Imagine how Mr Blair would have presented this week’s budget.

He would not have tried to sneak past the abolition of the 10% starting rate of income tax by hurriedly muttering it, sotto voce, so that only David Laws for the Lib Dems spotted its significance. He would not have left his 2p tax cut to his final line, producing it like a rabbit out of the hat, hoping to distract and astonish in equal measure.

No, our current Prime Minister would have been open and upfront, something like…

“Seven years ago, Mr Deputy Speaker, I announced to this House that I was introducing a starting rate of income tax of 10p in the pound. The reason was quite simple: to cut taxes for the poorest in our society. This, for me, was a realisation of what New Labour thinking is all about. Putting money back in the pockets of those who have least, giving a helping hand to those who need it most.

“I do not under-estimate what a difference this reform has made to those with lower than average incomes. But, equally, I recognise that our tax system is open to criticism from those who say it has grown too complex. So the challenge today for our party is this: how can we simplify the tax system, and ensure that low- and middle-income households pay less tax?

“Today, I am delighted to inform the House how we shall meet that challenge. We will scrap the 10p starting rate, and use the proceeds to cut the basic rate of income tax by 2p in the pound. We will increase tax credits for the poorest. As a direct result of this measure, the whole country will be better off, and perpetually bathed in the sunshine of my bountiful iridescence.”

Okay, okay, so I made the last bit up: the whole country won’t actually be better off. But you get the idea. Mr Blair is actually rather more transparent, rather less spun, than the Chancellor.

The concept of ‘narrative’ has perhaps been over-sold in recent years. But all it means is that you should be able to distinguish a beginning and end to an argument, recognise its ideological sweep, perceive an underpinning philosophy.

Mr Blair’s speeches have a compelling narrative: they take you on a journey, even if you want to wind the window down half-way there because you feel sick. Mr Brown’s speeches take you hostage: gagged and bound in the boot of the car, he lets you out, disorientated and resentful, only once you’ve arrived at his pre-arranged destination.

Mr Blair’s the kind of politician who, if he were actually a magician, would tell you how he did the trick. Mr Brown takes pleasure in secrets, in concealing from us what he knows and we do not.

Mr Blair has an instinctual, simpatico sixth sense. Mr Brown an analytical, brooding tone deafness.

The budget was Mr Brown’s career-defining opportunity to show he could match, even surpass, Mr Blair’s sureness of touch. He flunked it.