Brown - the first year

Gordon Brown has a lot to ponder on his first anniversary as PM
Gordon Brown has a lot to ponder on his first anniversary as PM

It all started so well. The people were sick of spin and image, the commentators said. Tony Blair had let us all down. One second he was "a pretty straight kind of guy" and the next he was promising everyone they were 45 minutes away from annihilation.

It was time for a man who could only ever be what he was. A man who was serious, authentic and, most importantly of all, deeply uncool. And for a few short months, Gordon Brown was exactly that.

"At the beginning, when we had the terrorist incidents, foot and mouth and summer floods, Brown had an air of assurance," says Dr Eammon Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute. "That was positive. But after the election-that-never-was it's all fallen to bits, and it's hard to think of anything he's been able to achieve against that background of chaos."

The non-election is widely regarded as the turning point for Mr Brown's fortunes and there's a good reason for that. Not only was it the tipping point of Mr Brown's credibility, the point of no return for his popularity, it also contained within it - like a Shakespearean tragedy - all the aspects of his story which would come to wreak havoc on his leadership: indecision, falsity and basic incompetence.

Seasoned political observers looked on aghast as Mr Brown allowed rumours of an election to build to a crescendo and then, on the back of a moderately effective Tory conference speech, just went ahead and bottled it. It made him look incompetent, a bad manager, an unsafe pair of hands. It made him look indecisive, a charge he will probably never shake. But most importantly, it flew in the face of his most valuable asset: honesty. Before that moment, he appeared uninterested in popularity or political calculation. But once that election was called off, the same tired qualities of Tony Blair got stuck on to his successor. The trouble is, Mr Brown is considerably worse at the game than Mr Blair ever was.

As if on time, Mr Brown's legislative framework fell to pieces in the face of global events. The centrepiece of his programme, a massive programme of affordable housebuilding, is now barely on the radar.

"Gordon Brown's commitment to building more affordable homes was politically very brave and entirely sensible," says Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter. "It's a shame the credit crunch and subsequent downturn in the housing market have overshadowed what was a strong gut decision."

Economics is a global issue now, just like the environment and just like terrorism, and leaders probably lie in bed thinking how unfair it is to be blamed for something you can't control. Well, that's not necessarily true.

"The outlook for the economy has deteriorated dramatically over the last 12 months or so," says Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist for Capital Economics. "This time last year it was viewed as a success story, now we're concerned about a recession.

"Some of the factors behind that change are out of the government's hands, like the credit crunch and the rise in oil prices. Where you can blame the government is for the position of the economy and the lack of scope to deal with those issues."

"One way to deal with a slowing economy is to loosen fiscal policy, but the government isn't in a position to do that because of the deterioration of public finances over last few years. So there you can be critical of their performance," he continues.

"And you can reasonably argue that after a decade of strong growth there should be some money in the coffers."

Not only that, but Gordon Brown's previous position as chancellor blocked off any escape doors he might have resorted to. He couldn't blame anyone because, in one form or another, he'd been in charge for the last 11 years. During his honeymoon period, few commentators pointed to Mr Brown's previous inaction in the face of sky-high house prices, despite his new-found commitment to cheaper housing. But the economic downturn hit when his popularity was sliding, and suddenly more attention was paid to his record.

"The government had allowed or encouraged consumers to live beyond their means and that's had a big impact on the housing market and the level of household debt," Mr Loynes continues, "the results of which we seem to be seeing at the moment with house prices dropping sharply".

Dr Butler agrees. "He's been a victim of his own actions in the past, really," he says. "When you look at the economic problems, yes, they're to do with sub-prime mortgages in America and the world economic situation. But Britain has been spending and borrowing for the last few years and now there's nothing left in the bank. So the seeds he's sowed have come to bear bitter fruit."

Economic downturns don't just mean gloomy editorials and the judgment of economic experts, though. They also mean industrial disputes. During last week's prime minister's questions, a Tory MP stood up, rather cheekily, to ask Mr Brown why there were always so many strikes at the end of a Labour government. He had the wrong variable. It's economic downturns which tend to end governments, and tend to make people go on strike as well.

Desperate to mute any mention of a left-ward drift - but still connected to the unions, in a way his predecessor wasn't, by the dire financial straits of the Labour party - the prime minister decided to adopt a tough stance against the rising calls for a higher public sector pay deal.

"The two per cent [pay rise limit] decision was a complete surprise," says Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of the Unite union. "The problem about this is that, apart from the Treasury, no one is putting forward the view that public sector pay causes inflation. It's ironic, but the Financial Times has had one article after another refuting that case. Wage settlements reflect inflation, they don't drive it."

The trouble is Gordon Brown is now getting it from both right and left. Right-wingers say he should have controlled spending during the economic boom and left some cash for a rainy day. Leftists are incensed at the tough - and many say economically irrelevant - stance on public pay when corporate bonuses are still at undreamed-of levels.

But in terms of sheer visceral anger across a section of the political spectrum, nothing can compare to the political misjudgment Gordon Brown made only weeks ago, over 42-day detention.

The prime minister is right in thinking most of the population support him on extending detention for terrorist suspects, but they're not the kind of demographic who will be swayed to vote on the matter. On the other hand, resistance to the plans comes from left and right - as David Davis demonstrated - but confined to a particular section of the middle class. This group might not constitute a large voting block, but they are powerful. They are the journalists and opinion writers, the thinktank directors and Notting Hill dinner party guests. And they are livid.

"The drive for 42-day detention is an outrage against civil liberties," says Dr Butler.
"We're still in the posture politics era. We're still in a hole and we're still digging."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, spearheaded opposition to the plans. She cites the vote as the bookend of Brown's first year in power.

"What a difference a year makes," she says. "From the statesmanlike handling of last summer's terror plots, floods and pestilence, to the grubby politics of 42 days detention without charge. I share widespread disappointment with the retreat from optimism and unity back into an all-too familiar negative political bunker."

And it wasn't just a moral problem Mr Brown faced during that Commons vote. He faced a measure of his own political mortality. As seasoned parliamentarian Shirley Williams said recently, the DUP - which Mr Brown relied on for his win - is the caretaker of governments. By showing the country he could not win with his own party's support, Mr Brown highlighted his own weakness, all in an effort to look tough.

It summed up everything that's going wrong at the heart of government. Idealists berate Mr Brown for the lack of inspiration coming from Number 10, especially after so many years of briefings telling all-and-sundry how he would end triangulation politics and be a principled prime minister. Realists have grown to despise Mr Brown's indecision and evident weakness.

The man in charge of the country has very few friends left. It will be a lonely political anniversary.

Ian Dunt


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