Gordon Brown’s Biggest Mistake

Gordon Brown

Prime ministers, unlike bankers, don’t write yearly assessments of themselves. They tell the public what they have done; sometimes they may say that they can do better. They may even say that the best is yet to come, as Gordon Brown implied in a speech delivered in London Monday, when he talked of the road he wants us all to take, with him, of course, out in front. But prime ministers don’t report to human resources departments, unlike bankers, such as Goldman Sachs’ Fabrice Tourre, who do.

Fabulous Fab’s self-assessment at the end of 2007, which the Senate subcommittee on investigations made public last week (see Page 246 of the subcommittee’s exhibits), is interesting because what he says about himself also applies to Gordon Brown. Here’s an extract:

Team work still needs to be improved, need to able to involve team members more actively. … Need to share responsibility and delegate more proactively. Have to stop double-checking work done by others and need to trust team members more regularly. Leadership skills need to be a focus at this point. … Sometimes need to be more patient with team members when arguing about risks and strategy. Need to be more open minded and need to consider more carefully alternative solutions proposed by other team members.

If you’ve been following the British election, and if you’ve read Andrew Rawnsley’s gossipy, bloodless account of the New Labor years, The End of the Party, Tourre’s assessment will sound astonishingly familiar: It’s what many people presume Gordon Brown must tell himself all the time.

Leadership skills need to be a focus—absolutely. Sometimes need to be more patient—can’t argue with that. Need to be more open-minded—yes, “bigot-gate” did underline that point. Have to stop double-checking work done by others and need to trust team members more regularly—Brown gives the impression that as prime minister he is the only minister and that he micromanages his Cabinet’s every decision.

In his biography of his political hero, Scots MP James Maxton, Brown quoted historian A.J.P. Taylor. “The leader who may be the best man for one stage of the journey is not necessarily the right leader for the next stage,” Taylor said of Maxton. “He was a politician who had every quality—passionate sincerity, unstinted devotion, personal charm, a power of oratory—every quality save one—the gift of knowing how to succeed.”

Brown has hardly been unsuccessful—he is prime minister—but he hasn’t been successful with the electorate, and he has only himself to blame. In 2007, after he became prime minister, it seemed at first as if Brown had improved Labor’s reputation. Through June and July there were serious floods in the Midlands, South Wales, and Northern Ireland, and Brown handled the situation well, distancing and distinguishing himself from Blair, too. In August and September 2007, there were strong rumors about a forthcoming election. The Labor party was thought to be gauging public opinion. Then, as October and November passed, it was obvious there was to be no election that year after all. Brown, it seemed, had gotten cold feet.

To hint at an election and then to pull back—that’s been Brown and his party’s undoing, although some would say that’s putting it much too mildly. For tribal Labor supporters—those who have supported Labor forever—it has become a political disaster. Not only do they ask whether their party will be out of power for a generation but also whether the Labor movement, founded by men such as Brown’s hero James Maxton, is at an end. The episode in Rochdale last week, when Brown cursed an aide for introducing him to “bigoted” elderly lady and lifetime Labor voter Gillian Duffy, was emblematic of the chasm between Labor’s leaders and the people the party says it represents—the British working class. Now there’s no knowing which way they’ll vote.

And it could have been quite different. Had Brown gone to the polls in 2007, he would have had the chance to distance himself from the widely disliked Blair. The Conservatives might have won—maybe, maybe not—and Labor would probably not have lost as badly as it will likely lose this year. The Liberal Democrats may not have fared as well. Even in defeat, Brown might have seen off a leadership contest and remained in charge of his party.

Now, and despite Brown’s handling of the financial crisis in 2008, one of the few sure consequences of an election whose outcome is thoroughly uncertain is that after May 6 Gordon Brown will be neither prime minister nor leader of the Labor Party. A chronicle of a defeat foretold if ever there was one, and there’s no point his blaming television or the defection of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers from Labor to the Conservatives.

Bankers, whom you might think would be somewhat grateful to Brown for bailing them out, seem to have little but disdain for the prime minister—at least, the bankers I met at lunchtime in Canary Wharf a few days ago. Those who can vote in the election (and many can’t because they’re from Europe or the United States) thought Brown was toast. That is no shock. Even if saving the bankers from themselves was Brown’s accomplishment, New Labor didn’t become the party of the financial classes. Nor did anyone expect it to, except perhaps Gordon Brown.

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