Saturday, February 27, 2010

The 'character question'

During the course of his long career, Gordon Brown can have faced few more humiliating episodes than having to run the gauntlet of journalists last Monday shouting the question: "Are you a bully, Prime Minister?"

A man who has dedicated his political life to the pursuit of social justice, and whose concern for the underdog is genuine, found himself accused of unforgiveable behaviour towards junior staff in no position to fight back.

Whatever the truth of the situation – and it has to be said that Downing Street’s carefully-worded denials were somewhat less than convincing – the revelations by journalist Andrew Rawnsley have certainly done Mr Brown no favours.

They do not make him a bad man. But as the election looms, they certainly raise questions about his ability to deal with the pressures of his role, and hence whether he is up to another five years in office.

Talk of the 'character question' in relation to Prime Ministers invariably leads to speculation about how some of our great leaders of the past may have fared under the kind of media spotlight today’s politicians have to endure.

Was Winston Churchill a bully, for instance? Almost certainly yes, but arguably some of those self-same character traits helped us win the Second World War.

Would the sexually rapacious David Lloyd George have survived the kind of intense scrutiny of his private life that modern-day politicians undergo? Almost certainly not.

And just what on earth would the tabloids do to a latter-day Gladstone who was found to be in the habit of touring round the streets of London at night trying to rescue fallen women from a life of vice?

So I am always tempted to allow politicians a certain amount of leeway in terms of their individual character flaws, on the grounds that these can and often do go hand in hand with genius.

That said, the public is surely right to expect its leaders to treat those around them with respect, and to ensure their private behaviour matches their publicly-stated ideals.

What saved Mr Brown this week was the intervention of the rather aptly named Christine Pratt, of the National Bullying Helpline, who unwisely disclosed that employees of 10 Downing Street had rung her supposedly confidential service.

It enabled the Labour spin machine to turn its fire on her, thus distracting the media’s attention from the scene of the original alleged misdemeanour.

To my mind, though, there were two aspects of the story that were particularly damaging. Firstly, the timing.

Amid growing signs of economic recovery, Labour has been steadily pegging back the Tories’ poll lead which last weekend was back down to six points in one survey.

In an intervention that might have led Monday’s news bulletins had the “bullying” story not overshadowed it, former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine moreorless admitted we were heading for a hung Parliament.

This week’s events will have given the Tories some respite from this apparent attack of the jitters.

By far the most damaging aspect of the accusations, however, is that they reinforce an already widely-held view about Mr Brown’s style of politics.

The Prime Minister may or may not have “bullied” Number 10 staff. What his people have undoubtedly done down the years is use the black arts of spin to batter a succession of fellow ministers and potential rivals into submission.

Alistair Darling, who claimed “the forces of hell” had been unleashed against him by No 10 after a rather-too-candid interview about the recession, is only the latest in a long line of figures to feel the sharp end of this.

It is primarily because Mr Brown has such ‘form’ in this regard that Labour may find it harder than it thinks to bat these accusations away.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Brown and Cameron move closer together

Last week, I wrote that Tory leader David Cameron had possibly made a wrong move in seeking to 'get personal' with Gordon Brown after having once claimed he wanted to end "Punch and Judy politics."

But it seems that Mr Cameron is not alone among the party leaders in disowning his previously-stated views in pursuit of election victory.

On Sunday night, ITV viewers were treated to Piers Morgan's interview with Mr Brown in which, among other things, he spoke of his grief at the death of his ten-day-old daughter Jennifer in 2002.

Yes, that's the same Gordon Brown who in 2007 said he "didn't come into politics to be a celebrity" and vowed never to use his family as "props."

At the same time, Mr Cameron let it be known he would not be giving a similar interview – at any rate, not to a known Labour sympathiser like Mr Morgan.

But of course, that was not quite the full story – because viewers of Scottish TV last weekend would have seen the Tory leader similarly welling up as he spoke of the loss of his son, Ivan.

It is tempting to see all of this as some kind of political doppelganger effect, by which two politicians in competition with eachother eventually start to become the other.

As The Guardian’s Michael White put it: “Voters who complain that politicians all sound the same nowadays sometimes have a point.”

In truth, though, there is always a bit of this in politics - rival politicians are just as prone to mimicking eachother's personalities as they are to nicking their policies.

For Mr Brown to seek to out-do Mr Cameron in the personality stakes may well be seen by some as cynical, desperate and even fake, but in view of Labour's current polling plight, it is hardly surprising.

While laudable, the Prime Minister's earlier determination to eschew ‘celebrity culture’ was possibly rather naive in this day and age.

Three years into his premiership, he has maybe come to a reluctant acceptance of the fact that the public now expects its leaders to be able to "emote" with the best of them.

As far as the content of the interview is concerned, we learned little that isn't already in the public domain.

Yes, there was a deal between Mr Brown and Tony Blair over the Labour leadership after John Smith’s death, but all it amounted to was that Brown would stand aside for Blair in 1994 and that Blair would support Brown when his time came.

If that was all there was to it, it is clear that both men fulfilled their sides of the infamous bargain - which hardly explains why there is still so much bad blood between the two camps.

The suspicion persists that the 'real deal' went further, and included a pledge by Mr Blair to stand down by a certain date considerably earlier than June 2007.

Inevitably, though, most of the media attention focused on Gordon and wife Sarah's tears over Jennifer's death and the Prime Minister's description of the moment he realised she was not going to live.

If it results in Mr Brown being seen as a humbler, more human figure, then that is all to the good - my own personal dealings with him, though slight, have always left me with the same impression.

It is the most baleful of coincidences that the forthcoming election will be fought out by two men who have suffered perhaps the greatest tragedy that can befall any man or woman - the loss of a child.

As is the nature of such tragedies, it seems to have brought them closer together - not as individuals, but certainly in the way they approach politics.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The darker side of Mr Sunshine

Whenever politicians attack eachother in the run-up to a general election, it is safe to assume that some journalist somewhere will write a story beginning with the words: “The gloves came off in the election battle today as….”

In truth, the gloves are hardly ever on in British politics, such is the extent to which our adversarial system encourages bare-knuckle fighting between the protagonists.

Nevertheless, Tory leader David Cameron’s attack on Premier Gordon Brown over MPs expenses at the start of this week did represent something of a step-change in the pre-election skirmishing.

“Gordon Brown cannot reform the institution because he is the institution. The character of his Government - secretive, power-hoarding, controlling - is his character,” he said.

Such language certainly represents something of a paradigm-shift from the noble aspirations set out in Mr Cameron’s victory speech when he became Tory leader in December 2005.

“I'm fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing,” he said back then.

There was more than an element of calculation in this, given that all recent polling evidence suggests that the public is equally fed-up with Punch and Judy politics, or ‘negative campaigning’ to use the technical term.

Indeed, it has since emerged that an internal report on the Tories’ 2005 election campaign found that personal attacks on Tony Blair had actually done more damage to them than to Labour.

Now what was really interesting about this finding was that it showed that politicians saying what the public is thinking is not necessarily always the way to win elections.

Even before 2005, a growing number of people felt that Mr Blair had taken the country into war with Iraq on a false prospectus – but when the Tories branded him a “liar,” the attacks backfired.

Why was this? Well, partly, it’s because the floating voters who actually decide elections are not always thinking the same way as the wider public – as the Tories also found when they talked about immigration.

The biggest reason, though, is that when opposition politicians resort to negative campaigning, it invariably leads the public to assume they have nothing positive or new to offer.

My own hunch is that Mr Cameron was on the right lines when first took over, and that his subsequent decision to “get personal” is a significant strategic error on his part.

Maybe he thinks Mr Brown is now so unpopular that he can freely insult him in the knowledge that the public agrees with him, but if so, he is confusing what the public thinks with what the public wants.

Mr Brown may well be unpopular – but what people really want to hear about from Mr Cameron is his policies, not what he thinks of his opponent.

If he continues to talk about personalities rather than policies, they will fairly swiftly conclude that it’s because he hasn’t got any.

If there is one single quality the public is looking for in its politicians today, it is authenticity.

Just as Gordon Brown sold himself to us as a “serious man for serious times,” so Mr Cameron sold himself as the man who would put the “sunshine” back into British politics.

But as the Labour blogger Paul Richards put it this week: "When he attacks Gordon Brown’s personality, Cameron no longer sounds like a decent family man. He sounds like a public-school bully, flogging his fags for burning the toast.”

In other words, he can’t suddenly start playing Mr Nasty when he’s sold himself to us as Mr Nice.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Cameron seeks to tone-down Tories' harsh message

There are some weeks as a political commentator when you can find yourself racking your brain for something to write about. On others, though, you find yourself somewhat spoilt for choice.

That the past week falls into the latter category there can be no doubt.

We’ve had Clare Short giving evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, telling us that Tony Blair’s real reason for going to war was that he wanted to be up there with the ‘big boys.’

It’s a pity she didn’t feel strongly enough about it at the time to join Robin Cook in resigning before the conflict. Who knows, by acting together they might just have prevented it.

Then we had Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused of having let down the armed forces while Chancellor by imposing strict limits on defence spending prior to the invasion in 2003.

And we saw the conclusion of the tortuous negotiations on Northern Ireland policing, paving the way to full devolution and, perhaps, a ‘hand of history’ moment for Gordon before he leaves office.

Meanwhile the MPs expenses row reared its head once more, with independent watchdog Sir Thomas Legg finding that more than half of MPs had made “inappropriate or excessive” claims.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer yesterday revealed that three of them – Elliott Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine – will now face criminal charges.

Also in the news this week was Labour’s plan for a referendum on proportional representation, a deathbed conversion that has something of the air of tragi-comic farce about it.

I remember getting terribly excited about all the Blair-Ashdown manoeuvrings in the late 1990s, and how they planned to create a progressive-left alliance that would keep the Tories out of power for 100 years.

Electoral reform was to prove the stumbling block. It was when Jack Straw rubbished Roy Jenkins' 1998 report recommending the Alternative Vote that Paddy Ashdown decided to quit as Lib Dem leader.

Yet here we are, more than a decade on, and Labour is now endorsing that very system - surely a case of too little too late if ever there was one.

But in terms of its likely influence on the coming election campaign, perhaps the most significant story of the week was the apparent Tory confusion over public spending.

For months now, the main dividing line between the two main parties has been over the timing of spending cuts, with the Conservatives arguing that the scale of deficit requires action sooner rather than later.

Yet here was David Cameron at the start of the week attempting to reassure us that there would be “no swingeing cuts” in the first year of a Tory administration.

Were the Tories ‘wobbling’ on public spending, as Lord Mandelson was swift to allege? Shadow Chancellor George Osborne says not - but with election day looming, they do appear to be trying to blur the edges somewhat.

We have already seen this Cameroonian tendency to try to face both ways in relation their policy on regional development agencies, which were widely assumed to be for the chop within weeks of the Tories taking over.

Yet when this newspaper and others went and reported that, on the basis of some rather too candid comments by frontbench spokesman Stewart Jackson, the Tory machine swiftly went into row-back mode.

Mr Cameron’s apparent determination not to frighten the horses invites further comparisons with Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 election.

It didn’t do Mr Blair any harm, of course – but the public is older and wiser now.

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