Sunday, November 25, 2007
A matter of competence
As Chancellor, Gordon Brown gained a Macavity-like reputation for disappearing at times of trouble. As Prime Minister, he is discovering there is nowhere to hide. Before he moved into Number 10, I remarked that he would be one of the most dominant Prime Ministers of all time. He is now experiencing the disadvantage of looming so large over the cabinet. His colleagues are too slight to provide him with cover. Alistair Darling does not have sufficient independent stature to be a heat shield for the Prime Minister. The Conservatives will go straight for Gordon Brown. It is not the man who has been Chancellor for five months that the Tories are after; they want to ruin the reputation of the man who was Chancellor for 10 years.
His record at the Treasury is the foundation on which the entire edifice rests. So it is a serious worry for him that this is prompting a general reappraisal of what he did there. Did the regulatory structure that he invented contribute to the run on the bank? Did his merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise create the conditions that led to the scandal of the lost discs?
Mr Brown can say that it is unfair to hold him personally responsible when a foolish bank over-extends itself or idiotic civil servants breach security procedures. What he can't deny is that he was the creator of the systems that allowed this to happen. What he can't refute is that he has been in charge of them for more than a decade.
People have said many rude things about him over the years - bully, control-freak, Stalinist. Intended as insults, they were also compliments. It is always better for a leader to be thought of as tough than as the opposite. It is just two months ago - though it seems a lifetime - that a confident Labour party met for its conference under the slogan: 'The strength to succeed'. Solidity was the Brown brand. Reassurance and reliability was his political USP, his offer to the country in an uncertain and challenging world. Before his honeymoon turned into a nightmare, he won a lot of praise for his handling of the terror threats and floods in his early days at Number 10.
Hilarious as it may now appear, it was on competence that he planned to fight the election that he bottled.
Some will contend that Gordon Brown's reputation for competence was always a myth; at any rate, that it was not the whole story. The Revenue has now lost two chairmen in less than two years. Paul Gray's resignation came a little over a year after the departure of Sir David Varney because of billions of losses due to fraud and incompetence in the administration of tax credits (Architect: James Gordon Brown).
Even if his competence was over-sold, that was the legend Labour MPs were buying into when they gave him the keys to Number 10 without a challenge. They were aware that Gordon Brown did not have the easy charisma of Tony Blair. The lack of thespian ability was precisely the point of Mr Brown. His cheerleaders said we would get solid, dependable, purposeful government. A bit dull it might be, but it would be effective. The Saatchi ad agency won Labour's account by pitching with the slogan: 'Not flash, just Gordon'. The Prime Minister liked that so much he personally approved giving them the business.
Experience was supposed to be his most potent weapon against a Tory rival never tested by office. It is going to be a whole lot harder now for Mr Brown to play the competence card against David Cameron. Worse for him, it has also resurrected the character question. Before he got to Number 10, some senior colleagues - Tony Blair was one - wondered whether Mr Brown had the personality to be a successful PM. He put that to bed in his opening period in Downing Street. Now the old question has been given new and dangerous life. There was the clumsy briefing at the expense of David Miliband, which infuriated the Foreign Secretary, and the manner in which Admiral West was squelched for saying the wrong thing about anti-terror laws. Some of the many enemies that Mr Brown has made over the years have been taking their revenge. Rarely, if ever, has a Prime Minister been so directly attacked by the armed forces as he was assaulted by the five former defence chiefs who flew into the Lords to carpet bomb both his character and his decisions. All that adds to the sense of a government losing its way and its authority. There's something much worse than being seen as a control freak. That is being seen as an out-of-control freak.
We really do live in interesting times.