Comment: Brown’s dignified exit

This was the best ending to his political career that Gordon Brown could possibly have wished for.

By Ian Dunt

It doesn’t seem dignified. An unelected prime minister, sitting in Downing Street despite losing an election, and fixing up a shambolic coalition. But what we saw today was the best ending to his political career which Gordon Brown could possibly have hoped for.

I’ve been following, and writing about, the prime minister for three years now. In that time his popularity has fallen so low we simply ran out of metaphors. It would fall, and some pollster would point out that that was as low as Michael Foot, and then it would fall again. Crewe and Nantwich saw a 17.6% swing to the Tories. Could it get any worse? Yes. The humiliations were legion. Even in contests where Labour couldn’t possibly win, fate found ways to humiliate Brown, for instance by dropping Labour to fifth place in Henley, where it lost its deposit.

For two years, we knew the way the story would end for Brown. He would be destroyed in the juggernaut that was the Conservative election machine. Labour would be out of power for a generation. But that’s not what happened. Brown miraculously limited the damage, denying the Tories a majority. You can see what that means etched all over David Cameron’s slightly broken, brutally disappointed face.

Today, Brown fell on his sword in a final bid to keep his party in power.

Clegg had two red lines. We always knew the first – electoral reform. Labour was always the better bet on that, given the Tories’ will fight electoral reform to their dying breath. The second was Gordon Brown. This was made perfectly clear on April 21st, when Clegg told the Daily Telegraph: “Brown systematically blocked, and personally blocked, political reform. I think he is a desperate politician and I just do not believe him.” You can’t go back on that kind of statement. It was clear from the moment he said it, Brown could not lead a Lib-Lab coalition.
Labour has made the Lib Dems an offer they simply cannot refuse. They do not have enough seats yet, but the SNP and Plaid will come on board if you dangle electoral reform at them – any small party would. Caroline Lucas, the first Green MP, will come on board, even though she hasn’t said so yet.

There will be objections of course, and they will be made with a Biblical anger by the tabloid press and Conservative commentators. They rage will not be entirely genuine. If full proportional representation is secured, Conservatives know they are facing electoral oblivion in the face. As I write this, Tory MPs are making a big show of laughing and clapping in the committee room where they are holding their meeting. Don’t be fooled: this week’s events could spell the end of the Tory party as we know it.

Pundits, and man members of the public, will complain that this is a coalition of the losers, and that Britain must now be governed by its second unelected prime minister. The second attack is particularly effective, given the leaders’ debates set in stone a presidential image about the British political system. But Britain does not have a president, it has prime ministers, and no matter how self-serving it will sound when Clegg inevitably makes that point, it is also true. As for the first argument, Clegg has another pre-packaged answer. With the combined vote of Labour, the Lib Dems and the nationalists, the government will have one of the most substantial mandates in recent British political history. They could also lay claim to ruling for Britain, rather than for England, as the Tories would, given their dearth of support north of the border.

These are not perfect things to justify, and in an ideal world they would not be asked. But Clegg is living very far away from the real world, and he knows he must secure electoral reform now or face the eternal recrimination of his party.

Brown has fallen on his sword and made a Lib-Lab government possible – even probable. He has sacrificed himself for his party. In the years to come, that fact might overrule the endless coup attempts and deep-seated resentment Labour feels towards him.

For that fairly substantial cross-section of the public who genuinely hate Brown, who work themselves up into red-faced outrage at his very existence, this is not the humiliation they looked forward to.

Brown has managed to end his political story in his own handwriting. That thought will invariable give him succour in his retirement.

the views expressed in politics.co.uk’s comment pages are not necessarily those of the website or its owners.