No glory for the other Team GB

The Olympics and Georgia were both opportunities for Brown: why did he not seize the moment?

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There is something uniquely dreadful about the situation Gordon Brown found himself in as he returned from his summer holiday. He should have been basking in the reflected glory of the "Team GB" Olympic success. This could have been his "1966 moment". But somehow even the words of congratulation from Downing Street misfired. "I think the whole nation is totally delighted and really proud at everything that's been achieved," he said. The nation was left with no idea of how Brown felt about this extraordinary British achievement.

The medal haul could have symbolised the simplest of Labour messages: millions of pounds of carefully targeted investment has turned around years of underachievement. Scottish, Welsh and English competitors were united under the flag of the Union. This team is multicultural Britain at its best. Just look at the names: Ohuruogu, Idowu, Romero, Houvenaghel, Adlington and Wiggins. This could have been the crowning symbol of the new Labour promise of an end to the narrative of decline. And yet, already, the worst of all storylines is unfolding for Brown: a Tory mayor of London will welcome home the Olympic heroes and a Conservative government is likely to preside over the 2012 Games. How galling that new Labour inherited the pitiful Millennium Dome, while Cameron's Conservatives will inherit the greatest sporting spectacle on earth.

So why is it that Gordon Brown is so patently unable to seize the moment? The Olympics are one thing, but the British government's apparent paralysis over events in Georgia is quite another. How did Brown permit David Cameron to play the statesman in Tbilisi? Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, went all the way to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to tell President Medvedev that his country's response had been "disproportionate" and "unreasonable". Brown has been invisible.

While being outmanoeuvred by Cameron in the Caucasus, Brown allowed George Osborne to park his tanks firmly on his lawn at home. The shadow chancellor's lecture to the left-wing think tank Demos on "fairness" (discussed overleaf by Richard Reeves) was the Tories' most outrageous bid yet for the centre ground of British politics. No one really believes the new Tories are the champions of the poor, but their shamelessness in using the rhetoric of equality is a measure of how far the Brown government has retreated into itself. The Tory charges of increasing educational inequality, the growing gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor and a rising tax burden on the poorest deserve an answer.

There is an explanation for this failure to act that goes beyond Brown's personality. Those who watch the Whitehall machine at close quarters have been shocked at how dependent his government has become on focus groups since Stephen Carter took over as head of strategy this year. Nothing is made public before being fed through these political mincing machines. Insiders have noticed a slow sclerosis as policy upon policy is tested against public opinion in the hope that one of them will unlock electoral paydirt.

One former adviser told the New Statesman: "The trouble is that focus groups are often dominated by the person who shouts the loudest. Brown never looks like he means it when policy is made this way. Look at 'British jobs for British workers'." There is no evidence that Brown's response to the Olympics or Georgia was driven by focus groups, but it might as well have been. You can hear the conversation: "Look, Gordon, people think you don't do empathy and you look uncomfortable abroad, so let's keep it simple on the Olympics and let Miliband deal with that messy South Ossetia business."

Just not delivering

There is also a growing belief within Westminster, expressed by members of the cabinet as well as ordinary Labour MPs, that Downing Street's Team GB is just not delivering. Even with the help of Carter's expensive private-sector PR expertise, the message is failing to get across. Exasperated cabinet critics point to the handling of David Miliband's article in the Guardian at the end of July as an example of poor discipline. How was Harriet Harman able to give the impression she had no problem with the piece when members of the Brown camp were briefing that it was an act of gross disloyalty?

Fury is the defining emotion of Labour Party people from the constituencies upwards. Many MPs are now openly blaming the Prime Minister for the party's misfortunes. Before he went away, Gordon Brown had taken to calling backbenchers in to No 10 to give them a pep talk: they should stop the Westminster tittle-tattle and take the Labour message to the constituencies. These sessions were so badly received that one northern MP was heard to say: "If he gives me a ticking-off and tells me to get stuck in with my constituents I'll thump him."

The truth is the whole Labour Party must take responsibility for what has happened. The real turning point in the government's fortunes was not the election that never was, it was the leadership election that never was. Those who believed Gordon Brown was not the right man for the job should have had the gumption to make their case at the time. As it is, Brown has no mandate from his party, let alone the country. With the Prime Minister cutting an increasingly isolated figure, Team GB is getting smaller all the time.

This article appears in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession