Opinion: We all underestimated him

After three years of clinging on against the odds, only a fool would write off Gordon Brown now.

By Alex Stevenson

We’ve spent so much of the last three years wondering whether Gordon Brown is going to still be in Downing Street at the end of the month that the idea he might still be in No 10 in five years is, frankly, ludicrous.

But let’s face facts: that’s no longer such a preposterous notion. Of the three polls out today, two indicate the Tories are on course for a slim majority. One puts the Conservative lead at just four points, making Labour the largest party in a hung parliament.

Brown knows there’s all to fight for. A one in three chance for a historic fourth term in power? He’d take that. Any party would.

What is so ridiculous is not so much the prospect of the Labour party remaining in power – even if it is in coalition, or through the form of a minority administration. It’s the idea that Brown could still be the premier.

The notion that this man could remain in No 10 has been more or less unthinkable ever since the election that never was in autumn 2007. That catastrophe typified Brown’s big problem as prime minister: he never shook off the suspicion that short-term politics was always trumping the longer-term national interest in his calculations. From the 10p income tax U-turn onwards, journalists have never seriously regarded him as being a contender to cling on after the election he has put off for too long.

Yet his three years in charge have also contained clues about his strengths as well as his weaknesses. His decisive response to the 2008 financial crisis showed that he is at his best in a crisis, when his back is to the wall. The successive leadership crises all had one thing in common: Brown’s uncanny ability to survive. A desperate Cabinet reshuffle, saving him from his own party at the last possible moment, showed the world just how grimly – and effectively – he can cling on to power.

Now it’s time for the general election campaign, 30 days of intensive electioneering. “It’s about time,” a fighting-fit David Cameron said to journalists early this morning. He wants to paint Brown as quivering in the face of the electorate he’s delayed consulting for as long as possible.

That portrayal might win over a handful, but it’s far from the reality. For it’s clear this is an election that is going to play to the prime minister’s strengths.

Think about it. In the disciplined environment of a general election campaign there’s no time for indecision, no scope for equivocation. Suspicions that Brown might be engaging in a bit too much politicking become absurd – this is a general election, for heaven’s sake! These weaknesses can be discounted.

Instead we have Brown fighting to defend his record in power, in a war-wearing country whose economy is limping, rather than leaping, out of recession. Those broad sunlit uplands seem a long way off for now. Brown is in his favourite role: that of the underdog.

We’ve written him off before. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

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