In the many questions about Gordon Brown’s merits and defects as prime minister, his alleged bullying of his staff and colleagues is peripheral (except of course for those whom he allegedly bullies). Any bullying is a symptom of a more fundamental problem, not the problem itself. Whether staff at No. 10 Downing Street have complained to the National Bullying Helpline and whether the Helpline was right to announce that it had received such complaints and whether it now says that none of the complaints mentioned Gordon Brown — all that may entrance and obsess the media, but it’s strictly on the periphery of the periphery of the central question: are Gordon Brown’s working practices as prime minister conducive to the good government of Britain?
This has been brought into sharp focus by Andrew Rawnsley’s forthcoming book (The End of the Party) of which long extracts covered pages of yesterday’s Observer newspaper (21 Feb 2010). Rawnsley’s evidently well sourced account of Gordon Brown’s working style is devastating, and not mainly because of the allegations about bullying. Rawnsley claims to confirm from first-hand and reliable evidence what has long been believed, not just in the charmed circle of Westminster insiders, about how Mr Brown works: the impossibly long hours; the endless agonising over every decision and reluctance to take it; the reliance for advice and support on a small clique of personal cronies, to the exclusion of senior ministers, civil servants, MPs, party officials, and anyone else; the preference for focusing on one big issue at a time rather than coping with the constant stream of problems, large and small, that pepper a prime minister’s desk and require quick and firm decisions; the congenital inability to delegate, leading to constant interference in the minutiae of departmental ministers’ actions and decisions; the imperfect handling of his personal relations with ministerial colleagues, officials and other staff, aggravated by frequent rudeness and lack of consideration and by the systematic disloyalty of his personal attack dogs; the temper tantrums. And, presumably, the bullying.
None of this is new (although many of Rawnsley’s specific examples are). Six years ago Tom Bower’s polemical biography of Gordon Brown set out in painful detail all the charges against him now paraded anew by Rawnsley. Those in, for example, the parliamentary Labour party now holding up their hands in horror at Rawnsley’s revelations surely didn’t need to read either Bower or Rawnsley to know how Mr Brown conducts government business, and the likely consequences for the country of his working style and practices once he was in No. 10. Yet he ascended the national and party throne unchallenged as soon as Tony Blair finally consented to step down. Many people have a lot of explaining to do.
And yet, and yet: it’s fair to recall that Rawnsley, and even Bower, are careful to acknowledge Gordon Brown’s considerable strengths. He is clearly Blair’s intellectual and probably moral superior by a longish chalk, although his famous moral compass failed to steer him into a principled stand against Blair’s crimes of aggression against Iraq and, earlier, Yugoslavia (over Kosovo), or against the torrent of illiberal and oppressive legislation emanating from Blair’s successive home secretaries. Among senior politicians he has an almost unparalelled grasp of economics and finance. His response to the banking crisis and global financial melt-down was more prompt, decisive and effective than those of any other national leaders, and spectacularly more so than that of the leader of the opposition. He is scholarly and well read. Unlike Blair, he has a deep understanding and knowledge of the Labour party and in some ways a gut sympathy with its traditional principles. He can evidently be enormously kind, sympathetic and supportive. Although the peddlers of hindsight now assail his record as Chancellor of the Exchequer, it remains the fact that he maintained solid growth without significant inflation or unemployment for a decade, and by massive spending rescued the principal public services from many years of scandalous neglect by previous Conservative governments. Even if he alone among world finance ministers had spotted the likely consequences of the international banks’ malpractices with their derivatives and packaging of bad debts to make them look safe, there’s little or nothing that he could have done about it without a broad global consensus that governments must step in and stop it, and no such consensus existed. He didn’t foresee what would happen, but then which national political leader anywhere on the planet did? Our present predicament would be somewhat less bad if Brown as Chancellor had spent less on public services and had put away more of the nation’s resources for what a gloating Cameron and a gleeful Osborne refer to as “a rainy day”; but when public services, on which the most vulnerable people in our society rely, were still crying out for catch-up investment and higher standards of service, how could a Labour Chancellor have justified starving them of resources in order to build up the reserves — especially when Britain’s level of public debt was no higher than that of most comparable countries, and lower than many? And, finally, the current attempts by the Conservatives (and some LibDems) to lay the blame for the recession on Brown’s Chancellorship are patently contemptible, requiring no rebuttal.
Another reservation has to be made about Mr Brown’s inherent unsuitability for the role of prime minister, and the fact that no-one in the know about it did anything to stop it happening: no-one should forget the political reality in June 2007 when Brown replaced Blair in No. 10. Brown and Blair were the two biggest figures in British politics, and had dominated them for a decade. Even those most apprehensive about the prospects for a Brown premiership had no credible alternative candidate to propose. Any challenger would have been crushed under the tracks of the Brown juggernaut. He had been Blair’s obvious, acknowledged and unquestioned successor since the glad confident morning of 2 May 1997 when the two men moved into Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street. It’s easy to say now that Brown’s personal and practical flaws should have disqualified him from the succession. But hindsight, as they say, is a fine thing. Who else was there?
It’s both a personal and a national tragedy that a man with such strengths and such a record of achievement should have turned out, perfectly predictably, to lack so many of the essential qualities required of a competent prime minister. No. 10 under Brown is plainly dysfunctional. The idea that with some gigantic effort Gordon Brown could transform himself into an inspiring, charismatic, systematic, decisive, fast-moving, collegiate government leader, loyal to colleagues and earning their loyalty in return, defies belief. He’s not that kind of person. He doesn’t deserve the personal abuse now being heaped on him: his tantrums and inability to make decisions (and stick to them) and probably his bullying of staff are the symptoms of a deep-seated lack of confidence and sense of inadequacy, for which he should be pitied, not excoriated. But the fact has to be faced: he’s never going to be a good or even adequately competent prime minister, and humane pity is no excuse for failure to face the unpalatable reality. The longer he remains as prime minister, the worse the political consequences for the country and the electoral consequences for Labour will be. Replacing him will be a messy, painful and damaging process; but his continuance in office up to the election will be messier, more painful and more damaging still. Pluck up your courage, David Miliband. And what about the other vegetables?