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Sunday 14 October 2007

Brown is good for a laugh, if nothing else

The undoing of a prime minister by his own flaws makes for great drama, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Say what you like about Gordon Brown, but he's certainly put the fun back into politics. Not that he intended to do so. Life for Brown is earnest. Highly intelligent, but a cautious and risk-averse control-freak, he reads, he broods, he frowns, he calculates, he plots, he dithers, reluctantly he decides and then he tells other people what to do, shouts at them if they demur and if there's any more backchat, he goes into a sulk.

It's not a combination of qualities you'd expect would add to the gaiety of nations, yet it's the unfolding of Brown's character that has set British politics ablaze over the past few weeks. Of course, to us anoraks, politics is always a fascinating soap opera, but to the populace at large, it's a pretty dreary vista of indistinguishable quarrelling men in suits and women in flashy jackets. Yet the public loves a drama, and the drama is the sudden near-destruction of a prime minister because his tragic flaws are undoing him.

I went to Alaska, which does not follow European politics, on September 26. The Gordon Brown honeymoon had survived his leaden performance at his party conference, for by common consent the British were enjoying having an apparently solid, reliable prime minister they thought they could trust rather than the charismatic snake-oil salesman with the swivel hips of whom they had tired. Labour was around 10 points ahead in opinion polls, Brown's inner circle were seeking to destabilise the Tories by stoking up a media frenzy over an imminent election, the commentators were predicting that the Conservatives would fall apart during their party conference, that David Cameron would be shafted as leader and that cunning old Gordon Brown would then go for the electoral kill. Saatchi & Saatchi, once the Tories' advertising agency, had devised a brilliant campaign around the theme of 'Not flash, just Gordon'.

When I came back a week later, the Tories were united, their Blackpool party conference had been a triumph, they were setting the political agenda by promising to slash inheritance tax and stamp duty, David Cameron had delivered a brilliant speech and Gordon Brown had self-harmed by committing the disastrous misjudgement of trying to upstage Cameron by flying to Iraq to announce troop reductions.

Reeling from the bad press that followed what was generally thought to be a) playing politics with soldiers' lives and b) naked spinning of the numbers being withdrawn, Brown then had to decide whether to call an election.

He is a coward who, when he was Chancellor, would hide behind Tony Blair, whom he envied and loathed, when there was a crisis -- earning the nickname Macavity. ("For when they reach the scene of crime -- Macavity's not there!") Now there was nowhere to hide. Would he take the risk of being the shortest-serving prime minister since George Canning died in 1827 after 119 days, or would he bottle out?

In the polls, Labour and the Conservatives were now level-pegging. Had he been the straight-talking statesman he was pretending to be, Brown would have admitted he'd had a setback and that he'd be an idiot to have an election at such a time, but instead he lied that the polls had nothing to do with his decision but that he wanted more time to set out his vision for change. It was bad enough to be nicknamed Bottler Brown, but now he was also open to the accusation that he was taking the public for fools.

And then he damaged himself even more seriously by instructing his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, to steal the Conservatives' clothes on inheritance and green taxes.

As the extent of Labour cynicism became clear during Darling's pre-Budget statement on Tuesday, Brown could not control his glee: he grinned and chortled and pointed mockingly at the Opposition like a seven-year-old who'd stolen their cream bun. His backbenchers -- in the words of that broken-hearted Brownite, Polly Toynbee of the Guardian -- resembled "the Animal Farm beasts gazing through the farmer's window in the final scene."

The media coverage that followed was appalling and as the numbers are being unpicked, it's clear that the inheritance tax promises are mostly smoke-and-mirrors, that in many areas the policies favour the rich at the expense of Middle England and that many of them are ill-thought out. On Wednesday, at Prime Minister's Questions, Cameron was as funny and light on his feet as Brown was angry and lumbering. It made fabulous viewing.

As Brown panics about what to do next, I worry about Sybil, the cat that's just taken up residence in the flat at the top of Number 10 Downing Street with the new Chancellor. (Brown and family live in the bigger quarters next door.) If you're reading this, Sybil, stay well away from the prime ministerial feet or you'll take your life in your hands.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards