Is Gordon Brown really all that?

by Stephen Tall on October 8, 2007

Talk about a week being a long time in politics. If Gordon Brown had the courage to match his opportunism today would mark the beginning of the second week of an autumn ’07 general election campaign.

Phew, say Lib Dems and Tories

And both the Lib Dems and Tories would be more than a bit worried for a very good reason: neither party is yet ready to face an election. Why should they be? After all, we’re just half-way through the full Parliamentary term.

Of course, party politics being the Neverland it is, both Ming Campbell and David Cameron have felt compelled to declare resoundingly, ‘Bring it on’, in order to avoid the charge of unmanly cowardice. What does it say about the political health of a nation when we expect politicians to tell untruths?

It would have been declared a major gaffe, or be pounced on as running scared if either Ming or Dave had told it as it is: “Look, we’re just not ready yet. The manifesto’s only half-written, and we’ve still got to find candidates for some potentially winnable seats (let alone all the others). Give us another year, then we’ll be good to go.”

But Gordon, rather kindly, chose not to put us on the spot. As is often the case in politics, the right decision was taken for entirely the wrong reasons. Gordon wasn’t bothered that springing a snap poll on the public while the main opposition parties are under-prepared was in any way a tardy way to behave in a supposedly mature democracy. He was concerned that he might not win. Something tells me that concern is one he needs to get used to.

Gordon – from zero to hero and back again?

I only caught a glimpse of Gordon’s press conference today, via The Guardian website. Given that this extract, focusing on the reason for delaying an election, is one the Prime Minister will have practised, it is dreadful stuff – waffly, insincere and dull. True blue Tory Danny Finkelstein has drafted the text Gordon should have used, and made a much better job of sounding both statesmanlike and believable – here’s how it begins:

Yes, I considered calling an election. And here’s why. There are two options for a new Prime Minister. Asking voters for their trust in advance, or waiting until new policies have had a chance to work. I have been thinking about both these possibilities.
The polls were a large part of this. They have shown that people are enthusiastic, keen to back my vision for change. And that made me think hard about the idea of winning a fresh mandate which might make it easier to get Parliamentary backing for some of our most controversial ideas, ideas like reform of the Lords.
But the polls have also been volatile. They show that, quite understandably, the enthusiasm is accompanied by uncertainty. That uncertainty reflects the fact that people want to hear the arguments and see the change before they vote.

Gordon’s recent performance has recalled to my mind an article I wrote on this blog last year, looking at the often-forgotten part of the Gordon biography, the years 1992-94, when he went from being the obvious successor to John Smith to obvious bridesmaid to Tony Blair:

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.

Matthew Parris put his finger on it (as so often) last month when Gordon was riding high:

I keep saying this – but the man hasn’t got the ghost of a plan. Not an idea in his head. Anyone with ears to hear could guess as much from his speech and media interviews on Monday. “Citizens’ juries” across the country to advise the Government on policy? Spare us. Why doesn’t he advise the Government? He’s the Prime Minister.
What leaps from Mr Brown’s interviews is not the intellectual colossus that some of my Fleet Street colleagues describe, but an ambitious school bursar with a powerful ego, a good head for figures and a big gap in his brain where a creative political imagination ought to be. Mr Brown interviews like a frightened man, desperate to bore and bulldoze his way through 15 minutes without saying anything.

The Tories made the critical mistake in the summer of underestimating Gordon Brown’s tactical shrewdness. Until last week, he had inflicted grievous punishment on them for their complacency.

Labour has made the critical mistake of believing the hype about Gordon, imagining he can carry all before him on the assumption the country is as docile as the party. The last week has exposed the limits of Gordon’s prowess.