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Sunday 31 May 2008

Finance Ministers

When he became prime minister, Gordon Brown had a three-month honeymoon with the press. Brian Cowen had a week. Peter Robinson, yet another middle-aged finance minister who for years has been wondering when he’d get the top job, must fear that at this rate his own bride might clear off next Thursday before the wedding reception is even over. 

If there was a given in British politics among most of the commentariat last year, it was that Gordon Brown had been a brilliant Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the country was fed-up with being schmoozed by Tony Blair, and that rough-hewn old Gordon was just what was needed. When terrorism and floods hit Britain, he looked reassuring: if you’re up against bombers and natural disasters, you take comfort from a Big Clunking Fist (as Blair had christened Brown). 

And so, as advisers pressed him to have an election, Saatchi and Saatchi won the Labour account with a photograph of Brown looking sensible and the legend: ‘Not Flash, just Gordon’. 

Sadly for Labour, Gordon doesn’t like risk or elections, so he bottled out at the last minute and the press turned on him. Now today’s given is that Gordon is a coward, a ditherer, a really dreadful prime minister and a very peculiar human being. In local elections and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, the public have made it clear they agree. In the words of a member of the Shadow Cabinet: ‘if a control freak loses control, you’re left with a freak’.  

Even worse for Brown is that his record as Chancellor is now being scrutinised and his henhouse is packed with squawking chickens. Yes, everyone thinks he was right to give independence to the Bank of England, but he took away its regulatory function and we ended up with the collapse of Northern Rock. Now hard things are said about his selling of the gold reserves at the bottom of the market, of his introduction of a wasteful tax-credit system that no one except him understands, his stealth taxes, the billions he wasted on the unreformed public service, the insane computer projects and so on and on and on. 

And then there’s his personality. They say he’s bad-tempered, totalitarian and listens to no one.  Remind you of anyone?

Now, it’s early days for Brian Cowen, but he’d be wise to study Brown’s fate. If you can’t keep your temper in public in your first couple of weeks as leader, how will you be behaving after a few months? So far, we know that he’s told his own party that there will be no debate on Lisbon, he’s threatened to have the opposition shouted down in the Dail and at a time when it was vital to make common cause with the like-minded he alleged quite unfairly that Fine Gael and Labour weren’t pulling their weight on Lisbon. Sure, sticking plasters have been put on that particular wound, but – to the delight of those of us to think the treaty anti-democratic – through churlishness and indiscipline, Cowan has damaged the ‘Yes’ side.

The press hasn’t really got going on his record at Finance, but it’s already being pointed out that – like New Labour in Britain – the Irish exchequer was profligate and did not mend the roof during the good times.

And what of Peter Robinson? 

Well, he too will be feeling the economic chill. For years, the British government was prepared to bribe Northern Irish politicians lavishly in the interests of peace, but the good times are over. True, Robinson wasn’t in charge for long and no one ever accused him of being extravagant, but now that the bad times are upon these two islands he will be having to say ‘No’ more often that Ian Paisley in his prime. 

And then there’s the question of leadership.

Whatever one thought about Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern or Ian Paisley, there was no doubt that they were charismatic leaders. We came to believe that the public had got bored with charm and wanted straightforward captains at the helm, but perhaps we had all undervalued the importance of  emotional intelligence (or EI as it is known these days), which they all possessed in bucketloads. Whether they were dealing with individuals, groups or the public at home and abroad, Blair, Ahern and Paisley could read the emotions of others and manipulate them brilliantly. No one ever accused their successors of knowing what the other guy is thinking.

Brown bought some good suits, had his hair cut properly and his teeth whitened. Peter Robinson has gone over to contact lenses. Biffo has probably wisely concluded that there’s little point in a make-over.

Looks don’t matter, but character does. Brown is doomed. Cowen’s looking dodgy. Can Robinson escape the curse of the finance ministers?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards