Low charisma, high values

Paola Totaro, London bureau chief for the Sydney Morning Herald, is baffled as to why Gordon Brown g

The first time I saw Gordon Brown, my glasses fogged up. It was April 2008, and we were at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Ilford, east London, on the Ken Livingstone campaign trail for re-election as London mayor. Maybe my misty vision was less a reaction to the PM’s presence, and had more to do with the unseasonably icy weather and how, during a moment’s refuge in the toilets of the Sikh temple, I’d dropped the glasses down the S-bend. Nonetheless, that day Brown triggered a response within me that the intervening year has not changed.

I had arrived in London to take over the Sydney Morning Herald’s European bureau, smack bang in the middle of the bout for London’s mayoral chain. It was clear that the Boris v Ken show was no ordinary municipal poll; but it was the media coverage of Gordon Brown that had me mesmerised. Day after day, the papers were filled not just with shrieking economic headlines, but with a cacophony of moaning and bitching from a cabal of Labour ministers and backbenchers who seemed utterly at ease airing their despair about Brown’s leadership in public.

As a former political editor blooded by years of reporting the Labor Right – the conservative wing of the Australian Labor Party, and a rough, tough, mongrel breed, famous for their party discipline – I found this complete lack of control fascinating. Was it Brown’s lack of authority, or was this how Labour politics in the UK always played out? I was intrigued, and the mayoral campaign became my opportunity to observe Britain’s political leadership at first hand.

That morning in Ilford, Brown delivered a quiet, well-received speech about justice, notions of hard work and tolerance between communities. Later, I shadowed him as he did an awkward walk through the room, shaking hands, patting backs and doling out halting “Good to see you”s. He appeared shy – well versed in the demands of parish-pump politics, yet uncomfortable with small talk. I decided then that I rather liked him.

The weeks and months that followed turned out to be shockers for Brown. First the disastrous council elections, then poll after poll that seemed to head ever southward. Calls to backbench Labour MPs revealed no binding caucus, no ferocious factions – and no shame in bagging your leader to any journalist. Brown’s clannishness and impatience with dissent were all too visible. Labour seemed to have thrown in the towel and yet, from what I could see, the contest hadn’t really started.

Still, none of this explained the particularly virulent nature of Brown’s media coverage. Whatever his failings, he had been chancellor during a period of unmatched growth in Britain. And where is the proof that his policies – or George W Bush’s, or Kevin Rudd’s in Australia – are directly to blame for the economic troubles of the world now? Behind the scenes at the World Economic Forum in Davos, economists and observers spoke about Brown with respect. He was the first leader to take the huge step of recapitalising a bank, a strategy now followed the world over; in the United States, his speech to Congress was well received. No doubt he is a policy wonk who lacks charisma. But didn’t the British media turn on Tony Blair for being too slick, too good at communication? What is it exactly the UK wants in a leader?

When Gordon Brown delivered his keynote address to the Labour conference last September, he spoke stolidly, with no great shot of memorable brilliance or humour. But he got me. I wrote then that the impact of his speech lay in the lack of spin – and a visceral sense that he believes what he says. His delivery can be diffident, at times monotone. And that smile always looks forced and slightly canine. But his sense of civil service, the desire to see change through, the belief that poverty and problems with public health and education can be tackled successfully are all there – if just a few messengers would allow themselves to see it.

When he is outside the mainstream, Brown seems a different leader. At a couple of panel discussions in Davos, he had the audience in genuine waves of laughter (OK, it was an economist’s joke). At the party conference, he spoke with humanity about the near loss of sight in his right eye, saved by treatment provided by the National Health Service that his parents could never have afforded otherwise. His plea for a “fair” Britain can be dismissed as cynical pork-barrelling, but I have watched enough politicians of all colours to know those for whom these values mean something, personally and politically. “I know what I believe. I know who I am. I know what I want to do in this job,” he said.

The next general election is not expected until 2010. Ultimately, the key to Brown’s chances is the economy. During the next 12 months, there are three possible scenarios, two of which favour Labour. A deepening crisis, with rising unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies, would allow him to argue that handing the nation to the untried opposition is just too much of a risk. The second scenario sees the tide turning, but only just. With the stock market steadying and liquidity beginning to return, unemployment may still be a burgeoning problem – but economists are starting to say that the worst may be over. Brown can then campaign on the message that his strategies have started to reap reward, but the country isn’t out of the woods yet. Again, a change of leadership and policy could threaten what has been achieved.

The third set of circumstances is the most difficult for Brown – but the most unlikely. If the economy reaches the road to recovery before the election, he can take credit for the upturn. Recent polls show that the public acknowledges his strengths. Yet voters have an undeniable sense, too, that David Cameron can be a leader for the future.

Brown’s current position reminds me of the situation that once faced Paul Keating, the Australian prime minister of the early and mid-1990s. He, too, was an ambitious former treasurer who replaced an enormously popular and charismatic PM, Bob Hawke. Like Brown, Keating had been an architect of his predecessor’s success – and he then governed through a recession before winning an election that everyone, and most particularly the media, thought he would lose.

Brown urgently needs to follow Keating’s example and start showing more of his innate strengths – and must remember that self-belief can be perceived as arrogance. Who knows? Then he might emulate Keating and pull off his own “sweetest victory of all”.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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