Sketch: Brown’s team of one learns how to laugh

Forget the prime minister making a minor announcement about May 6th. The real entertainment in Downing Street was to be found on the faces of the Cabinet members behind him.

By Alex Stevenson

Out of No 10 they shuffled, like extremely well-behaved schoolchildren lining up for their end-of-year photograph.

The Cabinet’s appearance behind Gordon Brown as the prime minister called the general election was, it must be admitted, a well-governed affair.

There were no top buttons undone. Justice secretary Jack Straw did not make a v-sign behind Olympics minister Tessa Jowell’s back. The secretaries of state for Wales and defence, Peter Hain and Bob Ainsworth, did not jostle for position.

(Illegal immigrant-employing attorney general Baroness Scotland was present, admittedly, but she was stuck on the end and wouldn’t have made it into most photographs.)

No; overall the effect was extremely well choreographed. Or, at least, it will seem that way in the footage on the evening news and in the pictures adorning tomorrow’s newspapers.

All the coverage will focus on the prime minister, anyway, as he stood – somehow diminished behind the grandiose front door of No 10 – facing the photographers and journalists on the other side of the street.

Mr Brown’s speech is worth skimming over, for this was not a towering work of oratory. Its most awful moment was when he announced, gesturing vaguely behind him, that “I am not a team of one – I am one of a team”. The first secretary of state, the Baron Mandelson, grinned rather lasciviously when he heard these words. Most Cabinet members merely retreated into looking a bit more gawky.

Instead it’s worth focusing on those poor unfortunates who, through their leader, today asked British voters for a “clear and straightforward mandate”. This, after all, is the Cabinet formed in the desperate heat of an intense leadership crisis last spring. It’s made up of those who chose the lure of high office over rebellion and alienation.

What’s wrong with a “team of one”, anyway? It sums up the contradictory state of British government through Cabinet today. Or a bizarre cult, with all the machinations and power struggles consuming it from within.

There was David Miliband, the foreign secretary and possible future leader now showing just a tint of grey. He nodded firmly every time Brown made even the vaguest allusion to world affairs, in full international summit mode.

Keenly attentive Harriet Harman, given pride of place as Brown’s left-hand person, looking as much like a head girl as it’s possible to without wearing a chequered shirt and long grey pull-up socks. There, dear reader, is a sight we do not want to see.

Stolid Alistair Darling, as firmly reliable as he was two weeks ago during the delivery of his pre-election Budget.

Andy Burnham, whose expression shifted between youthful grin and dour-faced default expression as quickly as the polls ebb and flow from Tory to Labour.

And Jack Straw, beaming proudly as he soaked up the soundbites. It’s possible the man may actually have evolved a way of gaining physical sustenance from them.

Brown was wrapping up, his weird hand-clasping finally giving way to a bit of old-fashioned gesturing. “We will say to the British people: ‘our cause is your cause. The future is within our grasp. It is a future fair for all.’ Now all of us, let’s go to it.”

And, after an incredibly awkward pause, he turned around and trooped back into No 10. His Cabinet dutifully sidled in after him, talking quietly among themselves.

And then, suddenly – just before the door shut – an uproarious gale of laughter emerged from within. It was a compellingly strange moment, for we didn’t know Cabinets were capable of laughter. Perhaps, as the end of this particular one approaches, Brown’s ministers are starting to see the funny side of it all.