Is Brown first among equals or first among children?
Blair’s first administration in 1997 had, whatever one may think of their policies and actual competence, a whole host of people who had been around the block several times and could genuinely be called political heavyweights.
The Great Offices of State were occupied by Gordon Brown himself (Chancellor), Jack Straw (Home Office) and Robin Cook (Foreign Office). The there were the likes of John Prescott (who, though a buffoon, was a buffoon with big clout with the Unions) George Robertson (Defence) Derry Irvine (Lord Chancellor), David Blunkett (Education), Margaret Beckett (Trade & Industry) and Donald Dewar (Scotland). All of these had been around for donkey’s years and were highly experienced politicians and all had been in Parliament for a good while.
Now look at what we have. The Great Offices of State are occupied by Alistair Darling (Chancellor), David Miliband (Foreign Office) and Jacqui Smith (Home Office). Darling has been around for a while but to call him a ‘big beast’ would invite ridicule. Miliband has been in Parliament for six years and has never had a proper job. Smith was once a comprehensive school teacher (and it shows) and was first elected in 1997 but has been a minister only since 2003 and in Cabinet since 2006. Harriet Harman has also been around a bit, being first elected in 1982.
Jack Straw is still around but is probably in the twilight of his career. Des Browne (1997), Alan Johnson (1997), Hilary Benn (1999), Douglas Alexander (1997), John Hutton (1992), James Purnell (2001), Ruth Kelly (1997), Hazel Blears (1997), Geoff Hoon (1992), Ed Balls (2005), Ed Miliband (2005), Andy Burnham (2001), Yvette Cooper (1997), John Denham (1992) make for one of the most inexperienced Cabinets we have ever had in terms of parliamentary experience. And if one looks at the career paths they have followed, few have ever done anything like run a large organisation with lots of employees or been responsible for huge budgets.
The other notable thing is that Gordon Brown does not have, apart from perhaps Jack Straw, any real contemporary political friends alongside him in the way that Blair had. All in all Brown begins to look highly isolated in Cabinet without much in the way of wise old heads to counsel him. Instead he has a group of Johnny-come-latelies most of whose experience has been in the nooks and crannies of the world of researchers, special advisors and the like of the Labour Party and wider Labour movement. Blair on the other hand had a Cabinet full of allies and buddies to whom he could look for support.
Of course Labour stalwarts will doubtless wish to present all this as the promotion of all the young talent, full of ideas, with which labour is so well endowed. To an outsider it looks more like a Stalin Politburo purged of any potential rivals and filled with weak placemen who will not rock the Brown boat.
Where does this all leave Brown? Well, if your government is under assault and has lost control of both events and the agenda, you need more than a lot of children to get them back. But that is what he has got. Malleable they may be, bruisers they are not.
Certainly they do not immediately fill one with fear and trembling nor do many of them instantly demand respect in the way that, say, Robin Cook did: though he may have been an annoying Scots pixie, he was a formidable political street fighter. Brown has none of his ilk.
There is also the question of Des Browne. He still has two jobs, defence and the thorny one of Scotland. Peter Hain has just resigned blaming, inter alia, his workload for the problems into which he has managed to get himself: he too doubled as work and pensions secretary and Welsh secretary. This rather leaves Des Browne out on a limb where he too has been severely criticized for the fact of his being the holder of two posts. His position is unlikely to improve and before long there will be some further cock-up or other and his having two jobs will look like a liability.
Which leads me to think that Brown is in a mighty pickle as he struggles with a deteriorating economy, a party that has palpably run out of steam, a flood of sleaze and his own personal character defects.
I shall stick my neck out. I reckon he will become that unusual creature, a Prime Minister who never won an election, of whom only Callaghan and Chamberlain, both failures, come to mind as examples in the twentieth century. And with the way in which his personal powers are visibly declining, one is bound to wonder if this government will now last until 2010 or whether events will see it off before then.