Upon taking office, Brown seemed to enjoy a charmed moment in the sun. One need not go over the history of the summer in any detail, save to say that Brown managed, on the face of it, to regain the lead in the polls lost under his predecessor by a combination of not being Mr. Blair, of events allowing him and his team to look as though they were managing problems competently and of having an ostensibly fresh set of commanders in charge of the troops.
The Tories on the other hand lurched over the summer from crisis to crisis. Having benefited so long from Blair’s unpopularity, Cameron had been able to get away with not having too many policies for too long. A series of misjudgements and poor planning seemed suddenly reveal an army in disarray. Questions began to be asked about his leadership and whether he would stay the course.
In the event all this combined to lead Mr. Brown inexorably to take his troops up the hill of a possible Autumn election. Then he blew it by taking fright at the first sight of the enemy and he and his men retired in complete disorder, not just to the bottom of the hill, but some distance beyond. In a spectacular morning of utter gutlessness he ran from the field of battle. Time will tell, but if he goes down to defeat at the next election, it will inevitably be that moment which commentators will fix as the moment he lost it.
Since then nothing has gone right for him. The Tories have, by having the electoral noose dangle before them, had their minds wonderfully concentrated upon the prospect of a fourth consecutive electoral defeat and having had a disciplined and generally favourable conference (if one excludes the distasteful presence of War Criminal Paul Kagame on the platform) at which some well-received policies were presented, suddenly began the fight back.
Brown meanwhile has lurched from crisis to crisis. Now there is beginning to be a steady flow of media comment, not just in the Tory press, that looks at the health of the Brown government and does not care much for what it sees. One article in the Daily Mail ought not to trouble Brown over much but when the articles surface across the spectrum over a ten days or so, then one begins to think that the government has a serious illness.
Last weekend then we had Marten Ivens in the Sunday Times. His proposition was that Blair had had, for much of his Premiership, that which sustains most Prime Ministers: a set of heavyweight Ministers to underpin his position in the way, for example, that Harold Wilson had the likes of Callaghan, Jenkins, Healey.
In contrast, Brown’s Government lacks, with perhaps the exception of Jack Straw (who is, after all, at the crepuscular end of his career) anyone who looks remotely like a big hitter. Whilst one might cavil at some of the detail of his article (David Miliband as one of the Ἐπίγονοι was too absurd for words, whilst his description of Liam Fox as “The ferocious Liam Fox prowls at defence: he looks as if he would like to bomb Iran before breakfast.” prompted the thought that there must be another Liam Fox on the Tory frontbench quite unlike the one we thought we had), the general proposition was a good one. Indeed one might go a little further and suggest that Brown’s Cabinet has been chosen not so much for strength but for its lack of competition to himself.
Yesterday the Independent’s Matthew Norman posed this question:
This is a question I neither hoped nor expected ever to ask, let alone so soon, but is Gordon Brown an even more embarrassing prime minister than Tony Blair, leading an even more risible Cabinet of pygmies?
The theme was much the same.
This weekend, however, sees the Guardian join the chorus: Martin Kettle (“Labour, gripped by fear, cannot halt its losing streak”) and Simon Hoggart both address the general malaise that has settled over Brown’s incumbency. The Daily Mail has, less surprisingly, got three of its bootboys to add to the general shoeing that is taking place: Amanda Platell, Quentin Letts and Peter Oborne. None of these might be accounted a friend of Labour: nonetheless, if one takes as corroboration the views of those papers that are normally supporters of Labour, however awful its policies, one may start to believe that the whole package is coming apart at the seams.
This has been another awful couple of weeks for Brown and for Labour. Botched immigration statistics never play well to a nation which knows only too well that Labour has basically given up trying to control it. Jacqui Smith, meanwhile, has been ritually humiliated in the Commons, as have Ed Balls, Miliband and several others who do little more than demonstrate just how over-promoted they are on an almost daily basis.
Gordon Brown himself shows every sign of being the obsessed micro-manager that detractors have described who relies not on the wisdom of senior ministers skilled in the black arts of politics at the highest level but on a group of kiddywinkies who have been in parliament five minutes: Ed Miliband (elected 2005), Ed Balls (2005) and Douglas Alexander (1997). Compare these with the aforementioned Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey who had all been around 20 years and more when members of Wilson’s two spells in government.
Ministers and others from without the Labour party who have been ushered into The Big Tent attest almost daily to the fact that his was not actually a terribly clever idea. Lord West speaks his mind and was hastily gelded. Lord Malloch-Brown speaks his and gives yet further evidence of his poisonous nature. Lord Jones (a.k.a. Digby Jones) has yet, apparently, to take the Labour Whip, scarcely giving off the scent of devotion to Socialism. Patrick Mercer has already slipped out under the awning, looking suitably embarrassed.
Add to this the routine discovery of incompetence which Labour then tries to spin as quite the opposite, the sense that Labour backbenchers have lost faith in him and the new-found confidence of the Conservatives as they goad Brown to fury (I wonder if you saw Brown at PMQs this week: I have never actually seen such a look of thunder on a Prime Minister’s face as he tried to swat away the Tory hornets!) and one begins to detect a Government that is on the skids.
It remains far too early in the game for us to predict with confidence a Tory victory at the next election: there is much to do and discipline to be kept for 18 months and more. But there is just the beginning of a feeling that Brown is beginning to have to bandage over the wounds and that when the doctors poke around the rank smell of gangrenous pus fills the room.