Friday, June 02, 2006

The problem for Gordon Brown

It has been received wisdom ever since about 1994 that Brown would succeed Blair as leader once the most successful electioneer in Labour's history finally left office. Brown has rumbled and grumbled in his impatience, being surly and obstructive in the Treasury, while simultaneously building up a power base that has never been rivalled by a minister in Britain's history. More than a politician, Brown resembles one of the over-mighty subjects of Henry VI, effectively independent of royal control, yet smarting under official subservience.

Yet murmurs are beginning to grow that Brown might miss his chance. Money is being placed on Alan Johnson, or John Reid, or even David Milliband as the next leader. Brown's impregnability looks a thing of the past. Economic forecasts are distinctly gloomier than a few years ago, and much of the problem can be traced directly to decisions made by the Chancellor. Decisions to increase bureaucratic regulation, to increase the tax burden, to increase massively public spending and to extend the writ of government intervention have contributed to the economic stagnation that seems inevitable.

But this is not really why Brown's future looks uncertain. A hard-nosed operator in Brown's position would already have precipitated Blair's removal. Brown has acted as though he expected Blair to leave at a time convenient to Brown, but has never done anything to force such a decision except to snipe and sulk and be obstructive. There appears to be no plan from camp Brown on how to get to no 10 other than wait. But time is not on his side. He is too grumpy, too dour, too unconvincing in his inclusiveness and, ultimately, too Scottish to be popular in the bulk of the country. Even in his own party Brown is missing a trick. It was widely reported that Ken Clarke stymied his last chance of the leadership by refusing to hack in the tea rooms. Brown has largely the same failing: a lack of ability to create supporters.

If Brown is to become Prime Minster, he must move swiftly, for time is running out. Guido has a favourite graphic showing a Tory victory in the next election with a subtitle declaring Milliband's intention to challenge for the leadership. Unless Brown acts with unwonted expedition, that might be closer to the leadership than he ever gets. The man who used to deliver the post to Dorneywood certainly looks a more convincing working class hero than the son of the manse and former Rector of Edinburgh University.

UPDATE: It can be a bit irking to think that one is ahead of the curve and then discover that one is merely re-iterating the current wisdom. Matthew Parris puts my case better than I can, and discussion is hot at Political Betting.

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