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It’s now or never

For his own sake, and the sake of the Labour Party, Brown must act like this is the final six months

In David Hare's 1993 play The Absence of War, the fictional leader of the Labour Party, George Jones, is described as "dynamite" in private but unable, on the public stage, to "come across". Jones's plight is based on that of Neil Kinnock in the general election of the previous year. Those who knew Kinnock then were struck by how "very funny" and vibrant he was in person, while sometimes straitjacketed under the public gaze.

This curious paradox is more apposite still when it comes to the current Labour leader. Kinnock, after all, was often electrifying on stage, as he was when he tackled Militant at the 1985 party conference, and in his 1987 oration (which included the passage, subsequently borrowed by the current US vice-president, Joe Biden, on being the first Kinnock "in a thousand generations" to go to university). And then, when alone, he was said to have been stricken by self-doubt.

Gordon Brown is not known for being dynamic in public. As he himself acknowledged, in an unusually personal introduction to his conference speech in 2008: "I'm not going to try to be something I'm not."

He added, to a rapturous ovation: "If people say I'm too serious, quite honestly there's a lot to be serious about."
But this was an exception. Peter Mandelson, days before he was dramatically recalled to government in October 2008, told me: "The reason why Gordon's speech at conference was a success was that it opened more of a window on to Gordon Brown. The public want to feel a connection, a personal one, with their prime ministers. They know he has a full head of
policy ideas and experience. But they also want to know more about him."

Good behaviour

It is this continuing duality of Brown's personality that - having been present throughout his long political career - may yet bring him down. His charm and wit are switched off the minute he goes on the record (as illustrated in our interview with him, in the Labour conference special pull-out, page viii). He becomes strangely impersonal: robotic and rigid.

Then there is the stark contrast between Brown the genuinely decent, compassionate man and the darker, more vindictive Brown. The former is the son of the manse who, in 2007, privately shed tears before handing the Pope his late father's book of sermons; the politician whose own personal trials - almost losing his sight in his youth, enduring the death of a premature baby - cannot help but move even his fiercest critics. He is a man with a moral compass who, when asked in our interview about the deeply personal abuse he has faced from the Tories, replied: "It's not the way I was brought up to behave."

On the other hand, there is the Gordon Brown who is unable to contain his anger, inflicting the so-called hairdryer treatment on out-
of-favour ministers and journalists alike. Tony Blair became the chief target of his ire, with proxies such as Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride doing Brown's bidding and representing his "dark side". As one on-off ally of the Prime Minister has said, "You feel sorry for Gordon until, two seconds later, you remember what a bastard he can be."

As in personality, so in policy. Privately pro-European since the days of opposition in the early 1990s, in power he has always refrained from using positive language about the EU. Steeped in Labour history and values, he has seemingly undermined the party with his unprecedented support for private finance ini­tiatives and his indulgence of big business. Leading the multilateral efforts to combat climate change abroad, he has approved the expansion of Heathrow Airport at home. In our pre-conference interview, he both praises and attacks the City, considers and dismisses electoral reform, defends "fairness" but won't engage on inequality or redistribution.

Let Brown be Brown
Haunted by the legacy of New Labour, Brown nonetheless remains at his core a "conviction politician", and the towering Labour figure of his generation. Abraham Lincoln once appealed to "the better angels of our nature": Brown must now open "more of a window" on to his own "better angels" and shed the rough exterior. If, as with Kinnock, his advisers seek to restrain him, they must change tack and, as with the fictional president in The West Wing, "let Bartlet be Bartlet".

Because, in private, by all accounts, Brown can be inspirational; in public he rarely is. As he approaches his final party conference speech before a general election that he sees as one about "big choices", it is more than the usual truism to say that he must learn to be himself.

To my surprise, Brown failed in our interview to say explicitly that he would remain leader until polling day next year. Yet this was pro­bably to avoid riling the rebels, and nothing in his past or psychological make-up indicates he would give up the chance to fight an election. Not after hankering for - and conspiring to get - the top job for more than a decade and enduring such personal abuse since becoming Prime Minister more than two years ago.

My instinct remains that Brown will stay and fight - and may yet win narrowly. But in order to do so, he has to be daring, find something so far unseen within himself. He must allow his inner politics and personality to "come across", liberating himself from old shackles and paranoia. For his own sake, and the sake of the Labour Party he loves and leads, he must act like this is the final six months of his political life. Truly, he has nothing left to lose.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter