It is dangerous, almost reckless, for a British Prime Minister to leave the country while in a jam at home. Had Margaret Thatcher not gone to Paris during the Tory leadership contest of 1990, she would probably have found the two extra MPs she needed to survive. Had Callaghan not jetted off for a Caribbean summit in 1979, he wouldn’t have looked so preposterously out of touch when returning to the winter of discontent. So it must have been with the greatest reluctance that Gordon Brown set off on Wednesday for a five-day trip to China.
The Prime Minister dislikes travel at the best of times, so the prospect of the 30-odd hours of flying which his multi-staged trip entails must have been his very idea of hell. If, as is likely, he drops in on Afghanistan, he will be strapped to the side of a Hercules, unable to read or hear anything. Once in Beijing, the time difference presents a clear choice between sleep, or staying in touch with London. He has left Jack Straw in charge, and will have to pray no crisis erupts which allows the Justice Secretary to shine.
Mr Brown is as fond of strategy as he is inept at tactics, and will have plenty to mull over in Beijing. If he plays the next few weeks correctly, he can survive until 2010 and hope for a miracle. If he flounders, he could be gone by Christmas, after which his party might simply disembowel itself. But — to his horror — he is now fighting on four separate fronts. He needs victory on all of them to survive.
The first battle, and the one for which he is most prepared, is against David Miliband. The truce agreed three weeks ago was temporary: neither had the time or inclination to fight in early August. And Mr Brown’s aides have anyway agreed a strategy to destroy the Foreign Secretary. They will caricature him as the puppet of the ‘ultra Blairites’, an exiled sect masterminded by the wicked, cat-stroking Alan Milburn. This narrative was established when Mr Miliband was on a beach in Minorca, and has already done some damage.
Yet Mr Miliband remains in play. Crucially, for the purposes of any coming leadership contest, he has won the support of the Guardian, which is optimistic that he will dress up redistributionist policies in environmental clothing. Opinion polls show Mr Miliband’s approval rating level with Mr Brown, impressive given the Foreign Secretary’s far lower profile. This is a platform from which he can very easily build. If he survives the character assassination campaign (Team Brown’s speciality), he will remain the frontrunner.
Yet British politics usually yields a stop-the-frontrunner candidate, who wins on the basis of who he or she is not. Major was not Heseltine, Thatcher was not Heath, Foot was not Healey, Wilson was not George Brown and Attlee was not anybody. This pattern should be remembered before Mr Straw is ruled out this time around. So Mr Brown must decide how to play his de facto deputy against Mr Miliband — while keeping an eye on his suspiciously silent Health Secretary, Alan Johnson. Not even John Major had so many potential rivals in his Cabinet.
The Prime Minister’s second battle is with his official enemy, David Cameron. There has been endless debate inside Number 10 about how to attack him: is he just an irrelevant PR man or does he have a substantial and potentially dangerous agenda? This week, the PM finally decided. Yvette Cooper was sent out to unveil a neologism: ‘Cameronomics’, the salient feature of which is supposedly the concealment of a sinister agenda behind a seemingly innocuous and irrelevant front. Secretly, Ms Cooper said, Mr Cameron plans to cut taxes — as if this were a self-evident outrage.
Three years in, and Mr Brown still has no idea how to fight the Cameroons. He has been told by Stephen Carter, his chief strategist, to accept that the public has already decided to like Mr Cameron. Best, Carter argues, that Labour tries to separate Cameron from the Tory party and attack the latter. But Mr Brown cannot get over his personal hostility to Mr Cameron. One Labour strategist told me recently that Mr Brown and his aides still believe there is capital in the ‘Tory toff’ attack line, used so counterproductively by Labour in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election.
The Prime Minister’s third war is one he wants no part of: that in Georgia. His prolonged silence over the outrage in South Ossetia made his general lack of interest in foreign affairs painfully obvious. The British like their Prime Ministers to be statesmen, and Mr Brown’s failure to make an impact on the world stage is fast becoming a national embarrassment. Ability to make domestic capital from foreign affairs is a key survival skill for any Prime Minister. Yet Mr Brown is losing this war, having nothing very much to say.
For this PM, ‘world events’ means the credit crunch and the field of his fourth battle: economics. This may be what finishes him. It is now clear that Britain has suffered a slow-motion devaluation — and one worse than Callaghan dealt with in 1967. Then, much newspaper ink and political blood was spilled over a 14 per cent fall in the pound. As any returning holidaymaker knows, the devaluation Britain has suffered in the last year is of a much greater magnitude in most major currencies bar the dollar.
The more Mr Brown responds to this with unfunded spending commitments, totalling £19 billion since April alone, the weaker the pound becomes. While there is indeed a world credit crunch, it affects Britain harder because our currency is weaker and our borrowing higher. The Brown Bubble, as the debt-fuelled boom years may yet come to be known, left Britain horrifically exposed. The average UK family debt was a sobering 178 per cent of household income at the last count, not just the highest in the G7 but the highest any G7 country has ever known.
Given how many of Britain’s economic problems can be traced to policy documents with Mr Brown’s signature at the bottom, it has become impossible for him plausibly to pass the buck to Arab oil sheikhs or Wall Street financiers. The country has made its mind up, and is impatient to pass its verdict at the ballot box. With fewer allies even than John Major, Mr Brown lacks the manpower for one battle, let alone four. His only option is to marshal what troops he has left into a thin red line, look as ferocious as he can and see how long things hold.