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The People versus Gordon Brown

The expenses scandal has hit Labour hardest. Brown should adopt a "masochism" strategy

The decision by Sir Thomas Legg, charged by the Prime Minister with investigating MPs' expenses, to impose a retrospective limit on claims (including £1,000 a year for gardening and £2,000 a year for cleaning), has reanimated the anti-politics sentiment that seemed to have subsided since the frenzy of spring. Having survived the party conference season, Gordon Brown finds himself on the defensive yet again, asked to pay back an astonishing £12,415. Though by no means the only party leader in trouble - questions remain over David Cameron's mortgage allowance and Nick Clegg is repaying £910 of the £3,900 he claimed for gardening expenses between 2006 and 2009 - he is, as ever, hit hardest.

Cameron initially made the running, ordering his MPs on 13 October to pay back excess claims or stand down, while Brown shied away from doing the same with his own parliamentary party. The Tory leader's move led the BBC's news coverage all Tuesday, while Brown's comments on the need to "clean up politics" and "consign the old discredited system to the dustbin of history" were largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the electorate has not forgotten cross-party expense claims for duck islands, phantom mortgages, moats and - most dismally - remembrance wreaths.

And yet still, as the cliché goes, politicians "don't get it". The public, who have to pay their own cleaning and gardening bills, are unlikely to sympathise with claims made above and beyond the retrospective limit introduced by Legg. One MP called me into his office as he rifled despairingly through years of receipts. He summed up the Westminster mood when he said being an elected representative was no longer any "fun", and he might stand down.

But it was left to Peter Mandelson, perhaps Labour's best reader of "where public opinion is", to make the key point: yes, these claims were made "honestly" against "the then existing rules". But, as he pointed out, "they are in the last, painful, and for some expensive, throes of an old, discredited system of MPs' expenses. We have got to get through this in a cathartic way."

In time, the expenses scandal is likely to fade and normal politics will resume. The colourful affair has undoubtedly hit the incumbent Labour government hardest, especially viewed through the prism of our right-wing media echo chamber.

But it will not necessarily determine the outcome of next year's general election, the result of which, contrary to conventional wisdom, remains unclear. The latest Populus poll, carried out for the Times between 9 and 11 October, reiterated that support for the Conservatives is thin; they apparently failed to win any boost from their party conference and their "austerity" package of spending cuts. Their support depends largely on retired people. They have even slipped a percentage point to 40, with Labour up three to 30 - and this despite the Sun's supposedly dramatic move against the government.

Meanwhile, the doyen of British election analysts, David Butler, agrees with the view, frequently expressed on these pages, that the most likely outcome next year will be a hung parliament. "Conservative commentators should be cautious," he writes in the current edition of Progress magazine, pointing to research in Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher's Media Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies showing that "if the major party vote is divided 40 per cent Conservative to 30 per cent Labour, the Conservatives would fall six seats short of a majority". Those are precisely the figures in the latest Populus poll.

In such a scenario, as I have written before, Labour will have to do all it can to win over the Liberal Democrats. Alas, the belated endorsement of the Alternative Vote electoral system through a referendum in the next parliament - signed off by a cautious Brown only hours before his conference speech - may not be enough. Clegg has indicated that he will accept nothing but a proportional system, which AV falls far short of - and a senior Liberal Democrat peer has told me that the party is unlikely ever to prop up a minority Brown government.

So, unless the Prime Minister revises this pledge - and electoral reformers remain hopeful that he will still gamble on a "game-changing" referendum on a proportional system on election day - he will squander the last chance in a generation for a progressive coalition at Westminster.

But Brown's larger problem remains beyond the political village. How does he connect with the wider public, filled with loathing for politicians in general and the Prime Minister in particular? Downing Street sources tell me he is considering bypassing the largely hostile media pack - obsessed with specious questions about his "health" - in an attempt to talk directly with the electorate.

This might involve a "masochism" strategy of the sort Tony Blair embarked on before the 2005 general election, as a result of which the then prime minister was booed by hostile audiences nationwide yet returned to the Commons with a 66-seat majority.

Brown has to emulate Blair. Unlike his predecessor, he has finally, if reluctantly, seized a unique opportunity to try to bond with voters through a series of televised debates with the other party leaders. Will the man whom Blair called the "clunking fist" prevail in the 15th round? He has nothing to lose, but much to gain. And when the televised choice on offer is between Gordon Brown's substance and David Cameron's style, the people may yet surprise Westminster and opt for the former. It is wise never to underestimate the seriousness of the British electorate.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England