Gordon Brown as PM: good, bad or indifferent?

When I was first elected to Parliament, I looked forward to meeting and seeing in action close up our major politicians, many of whom had previously only been a face on the TV to me. But Gordon Brown has been strangely absent from my Parliamentary experience. Despite having a huge influence that strays well beyond the Treasury, he rarely debates, rarely answers questions and even in his own Treasury patch leaves most of the Parliamentary speaking to his junior ministers.

And not just in Parliament. On issue after issue, and Iraq above all, he had to be dragged almost kicking and screaming to speak up for his party’s policies – even though all the time he has been signing the cheques for them.

What a weird Prime Minstership it would be to have someone who shies away so much from public leadership. You do not get the impression that this is someone spoiling to get stuck into arguing his corner. Indeed, granting independence to the Bank of England – Labour’s most striking policy in 1997 – was carefully kept out of their election manifesto and away from public debate.

So – will we see a different Brown if he makes it to Number Ten? After all, you can’t send your minions in to bat for you at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even if we do, this background means Brown is surprisingly unpractised in defending his positions in public under sustained pressure. Will he manage it? Judging by what I have seen so far in Parliament, it is an open question.

The breadth of his carefully prepared and cautiously expressed views has, to his credit, been striking at times: such as his sweeping analysis of the way in which during the twentieth century the switch in income tax from being a tax on a small part of the population to being a tax on much of the population has necessitated a significant change in the way that taxes and public spending are defended and justified.

Being Prime Minister, however, is not the same as writing interesting academic treatises. And his big ideas are a very mixed bag: tax credits have been a vastly over-complicated failure and Tube privatisation in London has seen millions squandered, whilst independence for the Bank of England (a policy lifted from the Liberal Democrats) has worked and much credit is due to him on Third World debt and aid.

On that issue he showed decisiveness and leadership, but on far too many others – such as pensions, the NHS and climate change – his response has been to set up long-term commissions under outsiders to tell him what to do. We have all had to suffer from lack of action whilst he has inched towards a conclusion.

Now, I’m no objector to careful consideration of issues, getting in advice, or preparing the ground carefully – but reviews need to be a means to making an effective, timely decision – and not a means to prevaricate. This slow moving, hugely cautious approach could – like his shying away from public leadership – be caught out very badly if he is in Number 10.

A liability too could be the long, long history of political infighting involving Brown and others. This dates much further back than Blair announcing he would not fight another election. As Philip Gould has recounted, it even goes back before the 1992 general election:

“The whole thing was so debilitating because every time Gordon appeared on TV, someone in John [Smith]’s camp would say, ‘Look, it’s another bid for the leadership’, Patricia [Hewitt] remembers.”

Someone I can’t quite see fifteen plus years of squabbling stop overnight at the leadership election. Indeed, Brown’s habit of cutting out others from decisions (as with cutting our Blair from key decisions on the Euro and the public by keeping his independence for the Bank of England policies secret during the 1997 election) makes for an unlikely leader of a team.

Neither is he a likely candidate to give Labour a fresh new look. He is very firmly one of the faces of now not-so New Labour. James Carville, who helped Bill Clinton win the US Presidency in 1992, famously wrote a sign in the office saying the election was about, “the economy, stupid”. But people tend to forget what Carville wrote before that on his sign – ‘Change vs more of the same’. And Brown is definitely more of the same. Blair’s record as Premier is as much about Brown as it is about Blair.

In fact, look at all those issues that most motivated Labour supporters to switch to us in 2005: top up fees, (lack of) free care for the elderly, Iraq and more. They all have Gordon Brown’s fingerprints all over them. Is Labour’s saviour really to be found in the man deeply immersed in the policies that drove millions of voters and tens of thousands of activists away?

There is though, one issue on which Brown’s judgement has been impeccable. As he told Paddy Ashdown a few years ago whilst discussing our parties’ respective economic policies: “You lot [i.e. the Liberal Democrats] were right.”

Now that would make a fun election poster for the next election!

This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat News. For subscription details, click here.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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