Gordon Brown's last stand

There is a pathos to the struggles of Gordon Brown. Friends “mourn” for him, but the Prime Minister

Early on a dull Saturday morning at King's Cross Station in London, Gordon Brown was hurried like a fugitive by Special Branch officers into an economy class carriage of a train whose final destination was Edinburgh. But this journey was no homecoming for him: we were entering the final week of the campaign, with Labour trailing desperately in third place in most polls.

Brown must have felt as if he was making his last, long journey as Prime Minister, and yet if he believed that these were indeed the final days of his premiership, he was not saying. He declined all opportunity to discuss what might happen in the event of a hung parliament or of a small overall Conservative majority, merely asserting, again and again, that he was "fighting for a Labour majority", and warning about the dangers that Conservative economics posed to the recovery.

There is a hauntedness about Gordon Brown: he has the forlorn air of a man who feels profoundly misunderstood, as he often is, and who believes he "cannot get my message through the press". Curiously, he told me, as I sat opposite him at a table on the train, that he felt he had "grown during this campaign", that he was "learning all the time", "still had much to offer", and "could make a difference". Above all else, he was convinced that the Tories, if elected, would endanger the recovery. So urgently and persistently did he return to this subject that it began to feel as if his words had a kind of strange clairvoyance: he has seen the future and it terrifies him.

“I mourn for Gordon," said an old friend of his, the economist and writer Irwin Stelzer. "I never like to see an election in which personality dominates. This is this man's life. Cameron has another life. You can forget Clegg. But for Gordon to finish in a humiliating third place, that would be a tragedy. I draw comparisons with John McCain, who is engaged in a primary fight in Arizona with some Republican nutcase. There's tragedy there to see John in that fight.

“Gordon and I disagree about economics. He believes in a coincidence of economy and government, that they are the same thing. He believes that he can use the GDP better in the people's interests than they can in their own. He has deep egalitarian instincts, a deep moralism. He can't understand why people would choose to buy flat-screened televisions over necessities and books. There's a grandeur in that, but also a misunderstanding of economics.

“You could say that he's presided over 13 years of disaster. He's overspent, overtaxed and over-regulated. His appetite for the expansion of the public sector knows no limits. Yet, when the crisis happened, when the chickens came home to roost, he knew what to do. The Tories did not. Cameron did not. Gordon made the right judgements. When the next crisis happens, and it's coming when Greece defaults, Gordon would know what to do. To handle a crisis, I'd pick Gordon over Cameron any day."

Up close and in person, Brown looks already monumental, like a figure carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore. There is a rock-like immovability to him. His big-brained head bulges and looms. He has endured more hurts and abuse than would break any man. Because of the economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the crisis of executive legitimacy created by the MPs' expenses scandal, his premiership has been one long, extended exercise in crisis management. He has struggled often, especially in the art of communication, unable to command the unity of his cabinet - there were three attempted coups against him - and incapable of connecting successfully with the wider electorate. He has equivocated and dithered. He has raged and apologised. Yet when it mattered most, his response to the economic crisis was decisive: the recapitalisation of the banks to prevent systemic collapse and then hyper-Keynesian fiscal and monetary stimulus to prevent recession becoming depression.

This response to the crisis, he agreed when I put it to him, would be his legacy. "In retrospect," he said, "everything over the last two years has been dominated by the world recession. I have no regrets now about other decisions I might or might not have taken before then [we had been talking about the election that never was in 2007]. It was important that I dealt with the world recession, that I took the right decisions.

“It's a fundamental difference of ideology between us and the Conservatives. It's about the view you have of the economy and how you want it to develop. I can't support a view that says you walk away, you leave people on their own, you leave them isolated in a recession. We will be proved to be right on this. If this was an inflation-led, 'interest rate high' recession we'd had to deal with, you couldn't do what we are doing now, because essentially you would have to deal with inflation by maintaining interest rates high. This crisis is more like the 1930s."

Brown was accompanied on our journey north by a small, loyal entourage that included his long-time fixer Sue Nye (the "Sue" who brought Gillian Duffy to meet him so disastrously in Roch­dale) and press officer Iain Bundred, as well as his wife, Sarah, the anxiety and strain showing in her pale blue eyes, and Peter Mandelson, wearing an immaculate, purple-striped, open-necked shirt and some expertly applied foundation. No doubt Mandelson was present on what was little more than a hit-and-run raid on Newcastle and Sunderland to prevent Gordon slipping up again, Duffy-style. Mandelson seemed to be enjoying himself and behaved at all times like a fond yet mildly exasperated younger brother, assigned for the day with the task of supervising his more wayward and unworldly elder sibling. At one point, after a visit to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, where Brown had given a speech during which he was heckled (in fact, it was less a speech than the usual robotic, rat-a-tat-tat warning against the Tories; at such moments Brown has all the spontaneity of an automated voice message), Mandelson attempted to encourage Gordon and Sarah to walk out of the centre, arm in arm, up a small hill and directly towards the massed ranks of waiting cameramen and photographers. "Go on, this will make a nice opportunity for you," Mandelson said, urging the hesitant couple forward. Yet no sooner had they set off than Brown veered offline, like a horse jumping left as it approaches a fence. Mandelson let out an expression of camp frustration behind him: "Oh, my Gaaad!"

“Gordon was never ideally suited to be Prime Minister," Stelzer told me. "At the Treasury, he had time to analyse the facts and the data and to apply his enormous IQ and historical knowledge to a problem. You can't do that as prime minister. Back then, he would have been perfect as the head of the World Bank or the IMF. Now, he's too tarnished."

The Conservative MP David Davis told me he thought Brown had been "deskilled" by his many years at the Treasury. "Being a chancellor under decent conditions is a positively underemployed job, both in parliamentary terms - no debates or statements, no PQs - and in public terms - you spend half your year in purdah and can say no to most things. It hurt him."

Later, when I mentioned Stelzer to Brown, he looked suddenly very sad. "Irwin," he said, his voice scarcely audible, "Irwin." He shook his head. Stelzer, of course, is very close to Rupert Murdoch and I told Brown that I'd heard that he had been opposed to the Sun's decision, taken by James Murdoch, to come out aggressively against Labour on the morning after Brown's party conference speech in October last year. "Labour's lost it" was the headline. Since then the Sun has run what friends of Brown call an "inexcusably vicious" campaign against him.

Does the Prime Minister regret courting the Murdoch family?

“They've got to consider the way they enter politics," he said. "Such a highly politicised campaign by the Sun against an individual and on the issue of Afghanistan is not within the public interest. That's why it's so important to get my message across directly. I'm not naturally someone who wants to spend my time talking about the faults of the opposition. But I feel I have to, because I can't get through the papers."

As polling day approached, the sense of panic and unease within the Labour ranks felt all-pervasive. The mood was more than simply jittery: it was becoming defeatist. I received innumerable pitches from writers, members of or affiliated to the Labour Party, who all broadly wanted to say much the same: Labour cannot win this election. Worse than that, the party as a coherent, election-winning force was in mortal danger. There were mutterings of an imminent split, as happened in 1981; of a long, slow drift into irrelevance, as happened to the Liberals after 1918; of the party being supplanted altogether by the Liberal Democrats as the main party of the progressive centre left - the Lib Dems have been endorsed by both the Guardian and Observer. Wow, how Nick Clegg has shaken them up!

Much of this was absurdly alarmist. Labour is not existentially imperilled. In the 1980s it was routine for Thatcherite commentators such as Brian Walden to write that Labour could not win again. But the party found new, pragmatic leaders prepared to adapt and, slowly, it regained confidence and began to renew and remake itself. It still remains the one truly national party: capable of winning in England and Scotland and of appealing to a coalition of the working class, aspirational Middle Englanders and the liberal and republican intellectual elite.

But the party has become a victim of fatigue and its own multiple failings of leadership, from the Iraq misadventure to its disregard of civil liberties. It has been unlucky, too: it just happens to be the incumbent party at a time of profound cultural, political and economic crisis. There is widespread agreement among our political, academic and journalistic elites that our entire political system is broken, that our late-Victorian and Edwardian institutions are ill-suited to the complexities of the 21st century, that we are grappling with the consequences of both market and state failure. After the MPs' expenses scandal, the near-complete collapse of the banking system and the subsequent Great Recession, we are at the end of something profound - not just the entire post-Thatcherite/Blairite neoliberal consensus but our whole way of doing politics in a media and entertainment culture that is at war with deliberation and thoughtfulness.

For many in Labour, the central problem is that the party cannot renew while Brown remains leader. "The problem is the same today as it was a year ago: the leadership of Gordon," one former member of the cabinet tells me. "Without him, we'd have a very good chance of winning this election. With him, it's a question of damage limitation, though we are doing better the further north you go."

Another former cabinet minister said: "My fear has long been that all the work we did rebuilding the party, stretching back to Neil Kinnock, will be wasted if Gordon leads us to a generational defeat. I always knew we couldn't win with Gordon. Can a big defeat be averted?"

While in the north-east, I travelled in one of the dark-windowed cars in the Prime Minister's motorcade but also on the media battle bus. There was little excitement among the journalists on the bus. The mood was perfunctory. Everyone seemed to be going through the motions. Nor was the bus full: there were uncollected lunches in brown paper bags scattered across the empty seats and many newspapers had not bothered to send reporters or photographers. Everyone I spoke to believed that power was slipping away from Brown.

Of late, and as his difficulties intensified following his encounter with Gillian Duffy, Brown has started quoting Eric Liddell, the fervent Scottish Presbyterian who won an Olympic sprint gold medal while refusing to compete on the Sabbath. "The first half of the race requires outer strength, the second half inner strength," said Liddell, and this has become Brown's mantra as he talks of his ability to absorb shocks and blows and then, the very next day, get up and start all over again. "It's hard, you take blows, but it's unfair to say that my life is just politics. If I thought I couldn't make a difference, I'd stop. I haven't reached that point."

I began the day thinking that, because of his late conversion to electoral reform and reversals on other issues, Brown was Labour's Ivan Ilyich, the character in the late story by Tolstoy who, as he lay dying, asked: "What if my whole life has been wrong?" But later, on the train back to London, as I sat chatting with him and Mandelson, I realised he hadn't changed at all. He remained what he always was - resolutely New Labour. And to the last, he is, like his great hero of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith, absorbed by the connections between ethics and economics, attempting to construct a moral philosophy of markets.

“Your liberalism is that you are pro-competition and pro-market, pro-business and pro-enterprise," Brown told me. "But we know also that markets have got to work in the public interest. Markets are in the public interest but they cannot be automatically equated with the public interest, so when markets falter or fail there is a duty on the part of the government to intervene. We always said that markets must work in the public interest. That was always a cardinal point about New Labour. Private-public partnerships was the markets working with the enabling power of government. When we came to power we had to end the neglect of our public services, so you had to have a public investment in your services. Then open up diversity of supply. Provide people with choice but also voice. Fairness is what I believe in. And equal opportunity. I believe in equal opportunity for all and fair outcomes. Equality of outcome is not possible but fairness of outcome is something we should aspire to."

Then Mandelson interjected. "So this now is a joint interview?" Brown joked.

“The first ever," Mandelson fired back. "I said that [Mandelson is referring to his infamous line about his feeling relaxed about people becoming filthy rich], because I was trying to show that you could be pro-enterprise and pro-competition, that people could come to Britain and be entrepreneurial. People doubted that before the election. They were sceptical of us. I'm still relaxed about people getting rich. But what I've learned from the crisis is that wealth must be accompanied by responsibility. And you must pay your taxes."

Brown cut in. "People wanted to create an artificial dividing line, saying that you were either for the state or market. Markets are an essential element of any economy but they've got to work in the public interest. So if the banks stop working in the public interest you have to intervene to make sure they do. If you don't have enough competition in the economy and have monopolies dominating you have to take action to create competition."

There was an air of leave-taking in all of this: here they were, Mandelson and Brown, reflecting wistfully on the early months of the first New Labour government, as if in implicit admission that the project was at last coming to an end. "If anything, we weren't confident enough," Mandelson said of the weeks following the victory of May 1997. "There was a feeling that we had a lot to live down from our past and a lot to prove. We became more confident."

Brown agreed. "The public service reforms, they were in the second term, weren't they?"

On the issue of proportional representation and the failed 1998 discussions between Lab­our and the Lib Dems, Mandelson said: "What happened about electoral reform with Paddy [Ashdown] and the Liberals was that they kept raising the bar. They wouldn't settle for AV [the Alternative Vote]. They wanted a fully proportional system. In our view you couldn't sell that to the party just as you couldn't sell it to the public. They'd just elected a majority stable government with a very popular programme that we were just implementing. You couldn't go to them and say you were changing the voting system. Gordon was not a bar to this. "

As for the present, Brown said, that the expenses crisis had broken a bond of trust between electorate and politicians. "With a more proportional system and right of recall, people would feel that, under AV, an MP would have more than 50 per cent of their support. This is not a deathbed conversion. The political crisis has made me rethink my position because you can't leave things as they are - the status quo is not acceptable."

At this point, one of the Prime Minister's aides brought drinks to the table - whisky for Mandelson and a beer for Brown. Before I left, Mandelson said something curious that sounds, in retrospect, like an attempt to claim a kind of victory even in defeat. "The point about the Conservatives is that they believe they cannot win an election by running against New Labour," he said. "They are for the political landscape that we have created.

“The whole point of Cameron's Conservatives is to market his party in a way that leads people to believe they've put their past behind them, that they're a continuum of New Labour. They are not, as it happens. But the fact that they feel they can only win power by marketing themselves in that way says a lot about the strength of New Labour."

There is an ease between Brown and Mandelson, the ease of two men who have known each other for a long time, have lived and worked
together in intense proximity, have loved and hated and been reunited. If this is the end of the New Labour affair, it is somehow fitting to find them together, still on deck and side by side, as the ship goes down, the band playing blue cocktail music to greet the arrival of Cameron's Conservatives.

In 1909, Charles Masterman published his great book The Condition of England. A Liberal MP and friend of Winston Churchill, he was writing from within the establishment but, influenced by his experiences among the urban poor of London and despairing of deepening inequality between the classes, he recognised that England was suspended between the old ways of the Victorian world and something quite new and frightening. He wrote of how "the man who is living amid that long-drawn decline is wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. It is an age in passing. What is coming to replace it? No one knows. What does it all come to? Again, no one knows."

The clear sense throughout this campaign, reinforced by my trip to Newcastle, is that no one is telling the truth about the extent to which Britain will be changed by the necessary fiscal retrenchment that will be imposed on all of us by whichever party wins. The cuts in public services will be punitive; there is likely to be social unrest of the kind witnessed in Greece. Yet this campaign has been a kind of elaborate dance of evasion, conducted in the theatre of the absurd that is contemporary Britain, where no one dare speak the truth for fear of being denounced in our hysterically short-termist media and entertainment culture.

So it is for us, as it was for Masterman, an age in passing. What is coming to replace it? No one knows. All we know for sure, at this stage, is that these are the last days of the premiership of Gordon Brown. What is coming to replace him? No one knows.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman