Brown has handled the crises well, but let’s not forget he is to blame for many of them
There has been something almost Biblical about the challenges which Gordon Brown has had to contend with since moving into 10 Downing Street. It started with the curiously unseasonal weather, which plunged London into darkness one July lunchtime. Then floods which submerged Middle England, and now livestock pestilence, albeit at just two farms. There have been no locusts or frogs (yet), but it already seems as if the gods are testing the Prime Minister’s crisis-management skills.
They found Mr Brown ready, waiting for them. He realises that crises mean showtime in modern politics, and that how a leader reacts to them shapes his reputation. Prompt and assured action, as seen from Rudy Giuliani after the 11 September attacks, can store up political capital for years. Confused and shambolic behaviour (viz Black Wednesday) can kill political careers on the spot. Mr Brown recognised he was on audition. He has responded accordingly, with swift and assured action.
Yet behind the rave reviews for the Prime Minister’s crisis management lurks the shadow of Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs. There is a certain amount of amazement that Mr Brown can do it at all. For the last ten years he has been a finance minister, where the only problems he encountered could be (and often were) obliterated with the stroke of a statistician’s pen. When faced with real problems, like the Iraq war, he was nowhere to be seen. He was Macavity the Mystery Chancellor, absent whenever trouble broke.
No one could so accuse him now. He abandoned his family holiday after just four hours on hearing about the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and instead of hiding he has taken control to an almost obsessive degree. During the floods, Cabinet members were being kept up until 1 a.m. to deal with crises. Others were phoned at dawn and pressed for situation updates. Civil servants complain they are left out of the loop because he refuses to delegate, doing so much work himself.
Both flood victims and farmers have reason to be grateful for his control freakery. The environment department is not to be trusted, as Mr Blair found when he naively relied on its ‘experts’ to deal with the last foot-and-mouth outbreak six years ago. As Mr Brown knows better than most, much of the government is a shambolic mess. Yet this takes us to the heart of his political vulnerability. When people have stopped applauding his crisis handling, they may ask deeper questions about the genesis of the crisis in the first place.
Take the floods. We know a surprising amount about the situation because — perhaps uniquely — the official inquiry preceded the disaster. Just two months ago the National Audit Office released a report which found that 43 per cent of the entire flood defence system was substandard. And this, it warned, carried ‘consequent risks should a flood occur’. A rather alarming sentence, given that such flood defences are supposed to be protecting four million people.
David Cameron decided not to pursue the government while houses were still deluged, and his ill-advised trip to Rwanda left him in a weak position. But this story is not over yet. If it does emerge that English villages were put at risk because of parsimony at the Treasury, then the applause for Mr Brown’s handling of the crisis may turn into fury at his priorities as Chancellor.
The mood over foot-and-mouth disease may also turn sour. It is looking increasingly likely that the outbreak came not from negligent farms, but from a laboratory licensed and inspected by the government. So far we have seen the closure of 100 auction markets and 300 abattoirs together with a new ban on British beef from Japan to Canada. If it emerges that this was all because of lax controls at a government research laboratory, Mr Brown may find the bouquets being thrown at him are replaced by brickbats.
The wonderful advantage to a honeymoon is that a new leader can dissociate himself from the immediate actions of his predecessor. But Mr Brown’s problem is that so many of the problems he will face as Prime Minister can be traced, in whole or in part, to decisions he made either at the Treasury or in what was in effect a joint premiership with Tony Blair. The problem with holding power for ten years is that a government cannot shirk the blame for problems resulting from years of neglect.
I suspect that many of the projectiles which Mr Brown will be batting away in future will turn out to be boomerangs, thrown by his own hand years ago. It was the failure of his New Deal which has led to soaring youth unemployment, now increasingly expressing itself through gangland violence. His call for ‘British jobs for British people’ would not be needed if his dysfunctional welfare system was not keeping 15 per cent of the UK workforce on out-of-work benefits. The appalling living conditions the British military today endure can be traced to his decision to fight wars on the cheap.
Yet for all this, Mr Brown today stands a more formidable character than even his friends had imagined he would become in office. He has dealt with every disaster fate has thrown at him with a sureness that often eluded Mr Blair. The Conservatives have for some time been able to step back and let Labour tear itself to pieces. Those who had hoped Mr Brown would bore and blunder his own way out of 10 Downing Street have been sorely mistaken.
This is perhaps a rash prediction, and I may come to eat my words. But I suspect the outlook will not become much worse for Mr Cameron. His interventions in recent weeks have taken on a new bite and relevance: it is as if he has realised neither Labour rebels not the media will attack the government like they used to and that he must now do the work himself. His task, while daunting, is relatively simple. He must simply expose the continuity between the government making the mistakes and the Prime Minister now dealing with the consequences.