You can call me an old softie if you like, but I do have just a smidgen of sympathy for Gordon Brown this weekend.
It’s a year since he finally made to it to Number 10, and all he hears is the sound of critics lamenting what a terrible job he’s doing. From the “best Chancellor in British history” to the “worst Prime Minister since John Major” … all in 12 short months.
So here, just for argument’s sake, is the case for the defence. First, look at the calendar. By the time he took over as PM, Labour had already been in power for a decade. That’s a long time in politics, and it’s at least arguable that no PM taking over after 10 years is going to have an easy ride.
Alec Douglas-Home took over from Harold Macmillan in 1963 (by which time the Tories had already been in power for 12 years) and was out a year later. James Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson in 1976 and lost an election three years later. John Major inherited from Margaret Thatcher in 1990, unexpectedly won the next election in 1992, but then limped on after the debacle of Black Wednesday until he was defeated by Tony Blair in 1997.
So the omens for Gordon Brown were never favourable. Second, look at the economic cycle. Yes, he liked to claim that he had abolished “boom and bust”, but even he must have known that the good times weren’t going to last for ever, although he probably couldn’t have forecast the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the consequent credit crisis. It was never going to be easy to retain a reputation as a miracle-worker once the downturn set in.
I wrote in this newsletter a year ago, when he took over as Prime Minister with the cheers for the departing Tony Blair ringing in his ears: “I fear the warm glow of satisfaction will be short-lived … Political honeymoons don’t last long these days.”
We knew then that he was detail-obsessed: no one who had been listening to his Budget speeches over the years could have been in any doubt about that. But we didn’t know he would find it so hard to make decisions and stick to them. An autumn general election? Signing the Lisbon Treaty? Tax changes for non-doms? The abolition of the 10p income tax band? There’s been, shall we say, quite a bit of recalibrating on the hoof.
We knew he lacked Tony Blair’s easy charm and communication skills. But we didn’t know that he would find it so difficult to respond to voters’ needs as food and fuel price increases began to hurt.
So yes, it’s been a dreadful year for Mr Brown and the Labour party. Party strategists now seem to be divided into two camps: one lot are asking: “What do we have to do to win a fourth term in office?”; the other lot are asking: “What do we have to do after we’ve lost the next election?”
My own hunch at the moment is that it would take nothing short of a miracle for Labour to win. (And no, I don’t think a change of leader would help.) But let me give you a tip: keep a very close eye on that new mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He’s now by far the most powerful Tory in Britain, and I’m told there’s no love lost between him and David Cameron.
Maybe it’s because Boris thinks he’d make a better PM than Mr Cameron, or maybe it’s something to do with old Eton rivalries. But if the mayor gets into trouble – something for which, on past experience he seems to have a special talent – David Cameron and his plans could be badly hit.
Wouldn’t it be odd if Gordon Brown’s fate now rested in the hands of Boris Johnson?