Saturday, June 30, 2007

Brown is the new grey

As terror returned to the streets of London, there was something missing. We had the al Qaeda back-story; the tales of heroism, the stoicism of Londoners who partied on regardless. But it was somehow incomplete, as if the star of the show had forgotten to turn up.

It was of course the absence of Tony Blair that made this crisis less of a drama. He would have been out there among the party people, soaking up the emotion and urging endless war against an implacable foe prepared to die to kill. Nor did we have hotheads like John Reid declaring world war three, demanding the suspension of human rights and sending the tanks aimlessly onto the streets.

Instead we had Gordon Brown urging us to be alert and vigilant, as if he was talking about the latest inflation figures. The new Justice Minister, Jack Straw, told the Today programme that “these things happen”. The manner in which Gordon Brown faced his first test as Prime Minister told us all we need to know about the character of this new administration. This is a government which is determined to keep its head when all about lose theirs, to react cautiously to events, and not hit the headlines with heat-seeking soundbites.

The Brown cabinet is very much in this downbeat image. The interesting thing about Gordon Brown’s new administration was its lack of interest. A monotone cabinet compared to the Technicolor of the last ten years. Grey men like Alastair Darling, Des Browne and Jack Straw. “A government of bores”, said one commentator, “the snoozers, the narcolepts and the headbangers”. The press are distraught at the prospect of a cabinet bereft of attention seekers of the Blair era, like Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn and Tony Blair himself. There’s not even a comic turn to replace John Prescott. The first act of the new government, a constitutional review, looked like an exercise in anti-politics - trying to put the nation to sleep rather than wake it up.

Brown’s halting and awkward victory address before Number Ten was pure bathos. I mean, who talks about school mottos and ‘doing their best’ in grab-it-now, private-equity Britain? Dowdy Sarah Brown looked like a harried mother who’d just dropped off the kids on the school run. I think we get the message: that there has been a change.

So is this fade to grey some cunning plan by Gordon Brown to draw a line under the Blair era of glitz, spin and freebies. Or is the lacklustre quality of the new administration a sign, like John Major taking over from Margaret Thatcher, that Labour has simply been exhausted by a decade of reckless charisma an unable to renew itself?.

Well, it’s worth remembering that the Chancellor isn’t just some accountant who happened to stumble into the Treasury. Gordon Brown was on of the architects of New Labour and is himself a genius of spin, a master of media manipulation. He knows all the angles, and his wife Sarah - who is the best-looking Prime Minister’s spouse in modern history - used to run a London PR company. So they know that stage management is essential in politics, and undoubtedly calculated that there was simply no point in trying to compete with the tawdry glamour of his predecessor and his celeb entourage. Beter to play to your strengths - dignity, probity, prudence, diligence.

And with the Prime Minister fingered for the third time by PC Plod over cash for honours last week, and more coffins coming back from Iraq, a bit of sobriety in government may be no bad thing. Faced with a Conservative leader who for some inexplicable reason wishes to be the “heir to Blair”, it makes sense to adopt the style of an older patrician conservatism, which melded “one nation” social concern with economic realism. The Daily Mail really, really likes Brown.

The new PM’s focus his administration on domestic policy, rather than foreign policy adventures. He’ll leave that to David Miliband, who is the keeper of the Blairite tradition. The kind of issues that Brown intends to address arevery different building houses, cutting personal and public debt, getting value for money in the public sector, improving social mobility and child poverty figures. These are actually rather dull issues, compared with starting foreign wars and crushing the Left, and they can’t be dealt with by emotional speeches and market fixes, like the disastrous privatisation of the English NHS. These problems require sobriety and hard graft - or at least the impression of it.

And yes, perhaps a certain anonymity doesn’t do any harm. The godfather of this cabinet is Alistair Darling, who has managed to hold down most of the jobs in government competently and without any media fuss. He is the opposite of John “fit for purpose” Reid, who progressed with much fanfare from ministerial post to ministerial post leaving a trail of high profile disasters behind him, from the NHS consultants contracts to the war in Afghanistan, which he said would be over “without a shot being fired”.

Darling has turned no-being there into something of a political art. In government since 1997, he has served in almost as many roles as Reid: Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Social Security Secretary, Work and Pension, Transport and Trade and Industry. Oh yes, and he was Scottish Secretary as well while holding down transport, but no one remembers. It is as if Darling has one of those pen-shaped devices from Men In Black which erases all memory in a flash. Brown clearly thinks that this is the way to do things, and has been looking to fill his cabinet with the men who weren’t there.

Instead, Brown intends to co-opt a bit of glamour by co-opting big names like Paddy, Lord Ashdown from politics, and people like Alan Sugar into his council of business advisers. Brown used outsiders very effectively when he was Chancellor to introduce unpalatable measures. . Independent commissions like Lord Turner’s on Pensions, Lord Wanless on the NHS, allowed Brown to introduce compulsory pension contributions and a tax increase - both of which would have been electorally difficult to sell had they come from his mouth alone.

In many ways the most intriguing appointment of all is Baroness Shirley Williams with some brief on nuclear non-proliferation. Perhaps this indicates that, as this column argued, Brown is indeed concerned that renewing Trident could help encourage a new arms race. Countries like Iran can point to Britain’s nuclear deterrent as a sign of western hypocrisy when countries like Britain are trying to stop them creating their own deterrents. Brown may be looking for ways to make multilateral nuclear disarmament a reality, and to provide moral leadership in the run up to the 2012 renewal of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.

So a cabinet of grey technocrats beavering away in obscurity while a few charismatic individuals, very much at arms-length, are used to generate some excitement. That, I believe, is the Prime Minister’s general intention. He will set the moral tone for this administration by embodying an unashamedly old-fashioned, even conservative approach to public service. People may not be excited, but that won’t matter as long as they have confident that the country is being well run.

However, there is more to politics than competence and hard work. Modern leaders need to be good communicators with a sense of theatre and an ability to empathise - in short charisma. Clinton had it, Blair had it, Thatcher had it, Churchill had it. Brown doesn’t have it. If that alleged car bomb had gone off in London, Brown would have had to be down there, on the pavements, feeling peoples’ pain. Brown doesn’t do empathy , but he’s going to have to learn. We live in an emotionally incontinent age in which people are expected to bare their souls to the camera in time of national crisis.

Brown is more in the line of Clement Atlee, Labour’s post war Prime Minister, of whom it was said that “a car pulled up outside Number Ten and nobody got out”. Brown would no doubt point out that Atlee was responsible for creating the National Health Service, the education system and social housing. It was a towering achievement. But Atlee, who inherited a Labour landslide, also lost government to the Tories

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