Sunday, 28 February 2010

Winning through intimidation

The most popular thing John Prescott ever did was to punch a voter during a general election campaign. Labour would have won that election anyway, but the deputy PM's right hook was probably good for a couple of seats. Shagging his secretary didn't do him much harm, either, blessed as he was with a remarkably forgiving wife. But then Prescott had a personality that, for obscure reasons, many people seemed to warm to. Gordon Brown - so goes the conventional wisdom - is far less appealing. Logically, then, last weeks revelations about behind-the-scenes bullying ought to have been deadly. Instead, he is doing better in the polls than he has done for two years. What is going on?

It may be that the polls would have turned anyway. They have been narrowing slightly for weeks - ever since the farcical Hoon/Hewitt attempted coup. The latest poll in the Sunday Times, however, appears to show that the mudslide has occurred over the past few days, even the past 24 hours. It has coincided with the Alistair Darling story - the Chancellor's hilarious admission that his accurate assessment of the economic situation (the legacy of Brown's stewardship of the Treasury) had led to the "forces of hell" being unleashed against him, not just by Number 10, "but the Tories as well." The main political story of last week was the sight of those same forces unleashed against the head of a small anti-bullying charity. Underpinning both was Andrew Rawnsley's tales - surprising to few who take an interest in these matters - of Brown's tantrums. Those Brownfall clips on YouTube began to look even more like documentaries.

There are two possible explanations. One is that the spin - that Gordon's tantrums were evidence not of bullying but of passion - has worked. Along with the lachrymose performance Piers Morgan extracted from him the other week, the Rawnsley material serves to humanise our robotic Supreme Leader. He chews the carpet, yes, but only because he cares. The fact that he helped get us in the present mess with his over-lavish and badly directed spending matters less to voters, in the final analysis, than his commitment. Like any good boss, he wanted his underlings to put in as much effort as he did.

I don't think that's sufficient. The evidence of bullying is strong enough to withstand such a rationalisation. It was more than just passion for solving Britain's ills: it was abusive. So we're left with the possibility that the revelation of Brown's bullying behaviour has actually increased his popularity. Voters - a significant number of voters - aren't just willing to overlook the PM's abominable behaviour; they're impressed by it. They want to be led by a bully. Not because bullying is a sign of passion or commitment, but because bullying in itself is a good thing. Obviously, you wouldn't want your boss to be a bully. But there's a suspicion (justified or not) that however unpleasant they are to work for, bullies get results.

Logically, the management technique adopted by Brown, which besides shouting involved pog-headedness, not listening to advice and a tendency towards centralisation that would have impressed Frederick the Great, has been a terrible failure. Politics has very little to do with logic, however. Elections are won by the manipulation of hopes and fears, especially the latter, and shaped by the myth of personality. The coming election will be Cameron v. Brown, and a large part of the Cameron strategy has relied on the assumption that the Brown personality is an unattractive one. In normal circumstances - the circumstances that prevailed when Cameron and Brown ascended to their respective positions, for example - this would be a sound assumption to make. But these are not normal times.

The decline in Tory fortunes can be dated fairly precisely to that airbrushed poster. It was widely and mercilessly parodied, of course, but those parodies alone can't explain its abject failure. The poster projected an image of bland inoffensiveness, the airbrush removing not merely wrinkles but any trace of personality or passion. The man depicted on it looked utterly blank. It was supposed to say "here is a man you can trust". Instead it said, "I am Mr Nobody." It crystalised a growing sense, that while Gordon Brown continues to inspire negative emotions in large sections of the population, David Cameron inspires almost no emotion at all.

At around the same time, Gordon Brown -assailed, yet again, by members of his own party - began to seem resilient. The Hoon/Hewitt coup actually strengthened him. So did the disarray among his Labour opponents, as Miliband dithered and Purnell flounced off. The bullying allegations fed into an emerging view of Brown as a political strong-man, dominating his party through terror. Machiavelli's advice to his Prince, that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved, remains plausible.

Gordon Brown swatted away the challenge from both Cameron and - more urgently - from David Miliband with his claim that it was "not time for a novice". The message Brown's Bullygate bounce might be that this is no time for a nice guy. So I was intrigued to read today, from the fanatically anti-Cameron Peter Hitchens, evidence that Dave too is a bully:


I said on my blog on Monday that Mr Cameron had better watch out in case people started asking questions about his own actions.

And within hours, a person (whose identity I now know, though he has asked me to keep it confidential) posted the following comment: ‘Cameron is far from blameless. I had the misfortune to work for him for a couple of months just after he was appointed to the Shadow Education brief in 2005.

‘Rudeness and inconsideration were his stock in trade with repeated attempts to humiliate me in front of others. Middle-of-the-night phone calls to pick up on adverse Press comment were not uncommon – much of it stemming from his own inability to clear a “line-to-take” in time for newspaper deadlines. Several colleagues often asked why I put up with it. Being an ex-journalist myself, I’ve worked for some nasty types in the past . . . he was undoubtedly the nastiest.’


This could be the boost David Cameron so desperately needs.