Gordon Brown's management of his government remains chaotic

Like Tony Blair before him, Gordon Brown appeared more comfortable on the American stage this past week than he does at home. Warmly welcomed by Barack Obama as victor in the tedious race to be first among European leaders to meet the new president in Washington, DC (there was the usual bluster about the “special relationship”), Brown was hailed at a joint session of Congress. Superficially the special relationship, or “special partnership”, as some in the White House now call it, has been renewed. But the underlying reality is different.

There is much symbolism in the removal from the Oval Office of a bust of Winston Churchill, a gift from Tony Blair to George W Bush in 2001, and its replacement with one of Abraham Lincoln. For all Churchill’s wartime greatness, it was he who helped crush the Mau Mau revolt against colonial rule in the Kenyan home town of Obama’s forefathers. And it was there that Hussein Onyango Obama, the president’s paternal grandfather, was detained without trial and probably tortured.

Mr Obama is too wise to allow the past to determine his politics. Today, he is concentrating less on the United States’ relationship with a middle-sized European power such as Britain than on the global picture: Asia and specifically India; the Middle East and specifically Palestine; Europe as a positive and united entity.

Gordon Brown is an ardent Atlanticist. On his Washington trip he was benefitting from the years he has spent courting Democrats while holidaying on Cape Cod, and, of course, there is much that unites the Prime Minister and the president. Both are passionately committed to international development; crucially, they are also at one on the need for fiscal stimulation in the face of global recession. Mr Brown’s trip to Washington was certainly not wasted: the ground has been prepared for the strategically important G20 summit, to be held in London on 2 April, the stakes of which are so desperately high, especially for a troubled Brown.

At home, recession-ravaged Britain is not burning as some conservative commentators have claimed, but Mr Brown continues to convey a sense of drift, of being behind the curve of events. As we have warned before, the optimism generated by the decisiveness he showed in recapitalising the banks last autumn has gone. In its wake comes a protracted row about the pensions and bonuses of individual, failed bankers. Mr Brown is right to demand that Sir Fred Goodwin, the former RBS chief executive, return at least some of his £700,000 annual pension. Yet it was duplicitous of him to distance himself from his deputy, Harriet Harman, for reiterating in a BBC1 interview Mr Brown’s own position on the Goodwin pension. The Conservatives and their many supporters in the press have enjoyed exposing the perceived divisions in the government over this issue.

While Mr Brown has shown his trademark caution in recent weeks – “his management and projection of the government are as bad as they were last summer”, writes Steve Richards on page 10 – President Obama pressed ahead with clear and decisive measures, most notably by imposing a $500,000 pay cap on executives of bailed-out banks and firms. The president, unlike the Prime Minister, has shown that he is not afraid to tackle vested financial interests.

Mr Brown cannot “save” Britain, less still the world. He flew to the US against the backdrop of plummeting financial markets, with the FTSE 100 Index closing at a six-year low, while on Wall Street the US Dow Jones Index fell below 7,000 points for the first time since 1997. Yet there are certain divisive measures that he can and should avoid, at least at this turbulent time. Using Peter Mandelson in his old role as No 10’s “lightning conductor”, the Prime Minister has picked an unnecessary fight with his own party – and, to a lesser extent, with the country – on the part-privatisation of the Post Office, a move from which even Margaret Thatcher shied away.

There are at least 15 months to go before the next general election. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, that contest has not yet been won by the Tories; indeed, it has not even begun. But unless Mr Brown can emulate President Obama by acting boldly and coherently while showing decisive leadership, in a way that does justice to his progressive instincts, the Conservatives will return to power next year with a large majority.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload