Thursday, 29 April 2010

Gordon Brown's missed opportunity

What's Gordon Brown good at?

Hmm. Tricky question. Alright then, what does Gordon Brown think he's good at? And what has he been most successful in persuading other people he's good at?

International economic policy, of course. There was a moment between late 2008 and the G20 Summit a year ago when Brown could present himself as the saviour of humanity from financial Armageddon. His "We've saved the world" remark - made at Prime Minister's Questions - attracted much merriment for its hubris. It was, of course, a slip of the tongue. But - no less than yesterday's "bigoted woman" gaffe - it revealed what he really believed. And there were many at the time and since who believed it to be not altogether preposterous.

Whether or not Brown did in any sense save the world at that time, his handling of the banking crisis is the strongest card he has to play. His greatest achievement, though, was keeping Britain out of the Euro. No-one else could have faced down Tony Blair in his pomp, denying him his greatest wish and saving Britain in 2010 from the fate of Greece. Brown's spending splurges have wrecked the country's fiscal stability and inflated unsustainably the size of the public sector. But we can assume that they would have happened anyway. At least the relative decline in Sterling has absorbed enough of the shock to allow at least the possibility of recovering provided the next government takes the necessary measures. We should thank him for that at least. It also gives him a huge stick with which to assault the Euro-fanatical Nick Clegg, though I doubt he will be too keen on using it.

No matter: the point is that if the economy is the prime minister's greatest strength, it is the international not the national dimension that he understands best. It's also the subject understood least by the ordinary voter. Or by the ordinary journalist, for that matter. However great the impact on all our lives of decisions made round tables by politicians and bankers, such events are never going to cause the same amount of excitement as Gillian Duffy. It was predictable that some incident of excruciating embarrassment was going to occur at some point during the campaign, and Brown was always the most likely victim. It was the feeling of tedium that came across most strongly in his notorious comments about the voter he'd just had a reasonably friendly conversation with. She was "just a bigoted woman". He'd rather not have to meet ordinary voters at all. He'd rather be at an important conference discussing the international economy.

So why isn't he? True, not being part of the Euro Britain isn't directly caught up in the troubles of Euroland. But that hasn't stopped him in the past. And, as he never tires of telling us, three million British jobs depend upon trade with Europe (although not "our membership of the EU", as he wants us to think). At a time like this Gordon should be saving the world, not touring around Rochdale bumping into grannies. The crisis should have given him the perfect excuse to abandon the campaign trail, leaving the Labour cause to more sure-footed performers like Alan Johnson, and head off to the continent to negotiate with his peers. This he could have portrayed as an act of noble self-denial. "The future of the European economy, and the world financial system itself, is at stake," he should have said. "Even if it costs me the election, my first duty is to help prevent a second - and more serious - meltdown."

And the subtext - "You can't possibly vote me out of office at a time like this."