Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why have the wheels fallen off?

It's been a terrible week for Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. Widely derided for not calling an election, he was also savaged at PMQs yesterday. David Cameron was sharp, and has evidently decided that the best approach is to get under Brown's skin and needle him repeatedly with jibes about his lack of courage, honesty etc. It worked yesterday, Brown was visibly cross, but managed only to sound petulant and short of ideas. Matthew Parris has observed that Brown's first response 'I won't take lessons from...' is a classic briefing response, but the “no lectures” section is placed at the end of the briefing: an “in emergency, break glass”, last-ditch line of defence. That it was Brown's first response is not encouraging.
But why is Brown faring so badly at the first reverse? This is, after all, a noted Commons performer, who regularly put Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont (though less often Ken Clarke) onto the back foot. Why is he so incapable of dealing with personal attacks? Why can't he deflate difficult situations as Blair, and even John Major, could when PMQs turned difficult? In the days before Brown became Labour leader, and I was convinced that he would be a poor Prime Minister, particularly in the Commons, I based my reasoning on three things: he was unused to Commons debates where he was subject to any degree of cross-examination; he was used to widespread admiration and respect; and his tactics had always been to render opposition impossible rather than to defeat it.
The first left me thinking that he had become too used to delivering crashing Budget speeches, where although there is a right of reply, there is no back-and-forth debate. It meant that he became too reliant on figures, on statistics and on pre-prepared material. There is no real room for spontaneity in a Budget Speech, and his facility for such things appears to have atrophied. As a Prime Minister that's bad news. On matters economic it is sometimes possible to disguise the fact that you are not answering the question. On more general matters (like calling an election) it is not - you have to have sufficient command of the brief to answer unexpected and off-the-wall questions, whether they are asked by Andrew Marr or David Cameron.
The second was largely a question of lese-majestie, Brown had become used to being treated as the Iron Chancellor. Even when Blair became unpopular, Brown was still held up as the solid exemplar of practical politics. His power within the Labour Party meant that there was little direct confrontation where he was the victim. Brown became a bully, and no-one successfully fought back.
And that brings me to what I think the real reason is for Brown's sudden (and quite possibly temporary) collapse in the House and in the press. Brown's tactics with the Conservative Party in the immediate aftermath of his taking office were essentially the same as the tactics he employed to ensure that he didn't face a leadership contest for the top job. He attempted to destroy the Tories - to win the General Election by default. This is why he focused on enticing disaffected Tories over (how is Quentin Davies feeling now I wonder?), on cosying up to the Daily Mail, on inviting Margaret Thatcher round to tea. It was all an attempt to get the Tories to implode so utterly that he would automatically win the next election. It worked on Alan Milburn, it worked on Charles Clarke, it worked on Tony Blair, eventually. It hasn't worked on the Conservatives, and it has shown him unable to win the argument by default.
He's not used to having to win arguments through debate - especially when that debate is reported by a hostile media. He's made repeated mistakes, such as the budget 'con' on Inheritance Tax, and he looks half the politician of a fortnight ago. Maybe those polls last year showing how little people wanted him as Prime Minister were prescient after all?

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