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Thursday, June 19, 2008

'Dinosaur' at No. 10

It has been a busy week so I am a bit behind with some of these posts but I did not want to miss commenting on Jonathan Freedland's column in yesterday's Guardian. It is an insightful analysis of what we have all been thinking about Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister:

I find myself in sympathy with those who admired Brown through his 10 long years as chancellor and who keenly awaited his premiership, and yet now conclude that they got Brown wrong - that, on the current evidence, he is simply not up to the job.

At its most basic, he seems to lack the skills of a man who would lead a 21st-century nation. "He came in like an Oxford don, with a study full of files and papers on the floor," laments one minister, who now regrets listening to the Brownites who persuaded him to back their man a year ago. "He's a dinosaur," the minister adds, lamenting Brown's failure to delegate, his dithering, his days that start - or end - at 4am.

The most obvious skill gap is in communication. Brown always delivered a speech like an automatic weapon, but his admirers preferred not to notice. They imagined that the wittier, thoughtful man they knew in private would somehow reveal himself to the public once he became prime minister (even if he had never broken surface before).

That has not happened. Brown still reads, rather than delivers a speech, his head down. He does not seem able to deliver three or four plain, human sentences that anyone could understand. The result is an empathy gap: he does not seem able to show any to the electorate and so they don't feel any for him.

None of this should have come as a surprise: the lack of presentational skills was visible a year ago. But plenty of us thought it might not matter. We reckoned Brown could make a virtue of his lack of glitz, offering himself as a figure of rocklike solidity in a fast and often fake world: "Not flash, just Gordon."

That approach could have worked. But it was fatally undermined by Brown himself. Having held back for those first three, sunny months, he fell into tricksiness and political game-playing. So he rubbished the Tories' proposed cut in inheritance tax, then copied it. He popped up in Baghdad during the Conservative party conference, promising troop withdrawals from Iraq. The effect was to show that Brown was as much of a calculating schemer as anyone else in his trade - he just wasn't very skilful or subtle at it. Not flash, just a politician.

All this came to a head of course with last autumn's phantom election. Besides the machinations clearly designed to give him a poll lead, the uncertainty created a new part of the Brown persona: that he was indecisive.

Freedland goes on to say that it was not the indecisiveness over the General Election that undermined Brown, but his awful presentation of his decision and the run-up to it. He tried to triangulate like Blair but did not have the skills or the aptitude for it. He has retreated into a sort of 'cautious Blairism' and has failed to grasp the agenda with the sort of decisiveness and radicalism that was called for if he was to make his mark. Ultimately, he has been let down by his own lack of courage, the very flaw that prevented him challenging Blair for the leadership in the first place and which is now undermining his premiership.

It is a damning judgement, but Freedland has not abandoned hope. If only his closest colleagues can prevail upon Brown to be himself, to take the opportunities that are available to him and to take risks, then all may be well. Unfortunately, this 'let Bartlett be Bartlett' approach may not work. The fly-in-the-ointment is Brown himself. Does he have the qualities needed to break the mould he has created for himself? In short, is he Prime Ministerial material or just a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer?
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