Brown and out

From Lord "Charlie" Falconer, who has, to no-one's surprise, come out this lunchtime and called for Brown to fall on his dagger:

We need unity above all. Can we get unity under the current leadership? I am not sure that we can and we need to debate it urgently and I think probably it will need a change in leader.

Did you see what he did there?

There are people plotting against Brown. Because these plotters are not supporting Brown, there is disunity in the Labour party. There will not be unity until the plotters get what they want.

The plotters against Brown include some of the most unlovely, career-oriented, cynical people in politics. Several of them (Blears, Smith, Purnell) were caught out flipping homes, avoiding tax or claiming public money for personal items that most people have to pay for out of their own income. These are people who, by rights, should have been out on their ears weeks ago, but who because of Brown's indecisiveness, or forgiving nature, or weakness (perhaps it was a combination of all three) clung on ingloriously to office. To allow that to happen was his biggest mistake. When they resigned, they contived to make it look as though their departure was a comment on Brown's calamitous premiership rather than the inevitable result of their own questionable behaviour. They succeeded, because the political narrative has somehow moved on (temporarily, at least) from the deficiencies of the political class as a whole to the soap-opera of Gordon Brown and his slow-motion downfall.

It's gone too far now to save Brown, I think. The die has been cast, the script written, the pathologists ready with their scalpals to dissect Gordon's political corpse. And what will they find? A failed economy, a lot of bad blood, a sense of a political system gone horribly awry. Some of these things are the personal responsibility of Gordon Brown. For all his undoubted intelligence and high ideals, he was wedded to an outdated belief in public spending and central control which, together, have almost bankrupted the country without commensurate improvements to public services. For all his affability in private, he has an awkward public persona and an Olympic-standard ability to bear grudges. For all his personal integrity, he allowed the Parliamentary expenses scandal to take place on his watch.

The contrast is with Tony Blair, a man of lesser intellect and considerably more moral flexibility (to put the matter kindly) who nevertheless managed to charm his way out of situations at least as bad (and certainly more personally damning) than that now threatening Brown. Would his nimble footwork have saved him on this occasion, too? It's hard to think so, given his own predeliction for life on expenses. Yet he got away with the Ecclestone affair (cash for policies - a matter in which he personally intervened and then lied bare-facedly in interviews), with the Bristol flats (dodgy property speculation facilitated by a convicted fraudster), with loans-for-peerages (in which he became the first sitting prime minister to be questioned by the police). It was Blair who, towards the end of his time in office, sacked the Parliamentary watchdog Sir Alistair Graham - basically, for doing his job too well - and then declined to appoint a successor. Graham complained at the time that the move "risks the perception, unfair or otherwise, that this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards in public life". If you can lie shamelessly enough, you can get away with almost anything. Gordon Brown isn't a very good liar; but his biggest problem is that people don't even want to believe him when he's telling the truth.

The tremendous irony in all this is that the collapse of public confidence in politics and politicians is directly attributable to the cynical actions and beliefs of the careerists clustered around Tony Blair. Gordon Brown played a large part in the creation of New Labour. His stock-in-trade lay in the character assassination of political opponents. In the hands of the darkest of his minions, Damian McBride, it was a low art; and it is wholly fitting that, when the time came, Brown should have taken responsibility by forcing McBride to go. What Brown didn't do, though, was lie systematically to the public. Nor did he use the electoral process for ignoble ends. In his misguided way, he has always had the interests of the country at heart.

If he fights to cling on to power, it will be because he sees himself as the country's saviour. Partly, that is because of his over- estimation of his own talents. But it is also because, unable to see good in any other party, when he surveys his own he sees Labour for what it now is: a cheap, squabbling, self-interested, incompetent, visionless rabble. Even in his present much-reduced condition, Gordon Brown remains head and shoulders above anyone else in his party - intellectually, morally, and in terms of experience - and he knows it.

It is a measure of the paucity of choice available that the most attractive candidate for the job of prime minister, Alan Johnson, is feted principally not for his achievements in office but because he was once a postman. And it is probably better to have been a postman than to have been nothing except a political adviser, like many members of the political class nowadays. But having been a postman is not a policy, nor is it a vision statement, and it's certainly not a reason to vote for him.

If - when - Brown is forced out, there will no doubt be a brief respite for the Labour government, as the public reaction seems to bear out the media narrative that this crisis has been all about Gordon. And then what? Since so many people have been reaching for Shakespearean comparisons, I offer one of my own. It will not be so much Hamlet without the prince as that play's final scene, when the entire cast (with the exception of the spectator Horatio) have slaughtered each other, and Fortinbras walks in unopposed to take over Denmark. Fortinbras actually has a good claim to the territory - his father was forced out by Hamlet's years previously. But what a mess he has inherited:

For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune.
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom
which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.

Another quote, from Disraeli this time, speaking in Manchester in 1872, when Gladstone's first government still had two years to run, but had already visibly run out of steam:

But, gentlemen, as time advanced it was not difficult to perceive that extravagance was being substituted for energy by the government. The unnatural stimulus was subsiding. Their paroxysms ended in prostration. Some took refuge in melancholy, and their eminent chief alternated between a menace and a sigh. As I sat opposite the treasury bench, the ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coast of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea.…

Election. Please. Now. Go on Gordon, what have you got to lose?


The plotters against Brown include some of the most unlovely, career-oriented, cynical people in politics.

Outside of the Tory Party you mean. Obviously we expect the Tories to be unprincipled ruthless schemers who would happily boil their grandmothers down for glue. That is after all what the Tory Party is for, to give that sort of person a vehicle. Being cynical, career-oriented and unlovely has not harmed David Cameron or George Osbourne in the least has it?

It would be naive to think that the politics of any large organisation, whether the NHS, a bank, a charity, a school, wikipedia or a political party is going to be for the faint hearted.

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