Sunday, 23 August 2009

Where's Gordon?

Thirty years ago, I gather, the country was engrossed in a search for a jewelled rabbit that an enterprising artist had hidden in a field somewhere. The clues were hidden amongst the illustrations of a lavishly produced book, with such devilish cunning that it was weeks before they were successfully decoded. But finding that particular piece of buried treasure was child's play compared to trying to establish what has happened, this summer, to Gordon Brown.

In recent weeks, our prime minister has become as invisible as Kim Jong-Il (although even he was briefly unplugged from the cryonics machine to be photographed sitting next to Bill Clinton) or the procession of reanimated corpses who presided over the Soviet Union during the days of its decadence. He is said to be in Scotland, engaged, among other things, on "community work", but we've seen not a jot of evidence. That, in itself, is most peculiar: it's hard to see why any self-respecting politician would engage in social activism without the presence of cameras to record his selflessness.

And simply because a politician happens to be on holiday, he needn't be invisible. Previously, we were accorded glimpses of Blair on yachts or relaxing at some Italian villa. Last year, GB himself was briefly filmed walking along a beach in Suffolk, unconvincingly holidaying for a few days before a succession of crises released him. It was big news. This year, he spent a week in the Lake District ignored by the world. There was, it is true, a photo, which showed (said the Mail) "a man utterly at ease with himself" - he looked to be sitting in a rather nondescript boat boat. The picture, however, turned out to have been taken by a tourist from Burnham-on-Sea, who was astonished when a blacked out Mercedes people carrier turned up at the quayside. "It was cold and drizzly, but they'd come sensibily dressed for a chilly evening", he recalled. Without his presence of mind, we would have no visual evidence whatever of the prime minister's whereabouts this summer.

Of course, there's no actual mystery about where GB is today. He's in Scotland (I think). But that only deepens the puzzle. It's not as though there's no news. Peter Mandelson rushed out of his hospital bed to comment on the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The news from Afghanistan - dead soldiers, rigged elections - continues unaffected by this being August. Brown hasn't even emerged from aestivation to exploit Daniel Hannan's thoughts about the NHS, a quite incredible forbearance given his fondness for scaremongering about "Tory cuts".

The prime minister went on holiday on 27 July and isn't due back in Downing street until the second week of September. That's a full six weeks during which he has been incommunicado. According to John Rentoul, it's all part of some "cunning Baldrick-style plan to keep Gordon Brown off the television for the whole of August". And it might well be. Instead we've had the entertaining spectacle of Harriet Harman's one woman feminist revolution followed by Peter Mandelson's charm offensive - though the main upshot has been fresh speculation about Brown's future, which can scarcely have been the intention.

But such a Machiavellian device can't in itself explain Brown's invisibility. Why has no journalist gone to solicit a quote from him, or even to take a photograph? They know where he is. They even know how peculiar it is for him to have gone so thoroughly to ground. It's strange, and slightly disturbing in this day and age, to see the press observing a level of discretion not seen since the run-up to the Abdication crisis, when newspaper barons colluded to keep news of the king's dalliance with Mrs Simpson out of the prying eyes of the British public. What threats, what inducements, can a failing, flailing, soon-to-be ousted government possibly have made to secure Brown's invisibility? I think we should be told.

I suppose we should be grateful he didn't put in an appearance at the Oval this afternoon - things looked dicey enough around lunchtime as it was. But regardless of the politics, for a modern prime minister to be out of public view for over a month amounts to a dereliction of duty. He shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.