Alex Massie

A Strategic Blunder by a Prime Minister Living in a Fantasy World

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Gordon Brown is an intelligent man but I've always thought him a better tactician than strategist. His speech to the Labour party conference yesterday confirmed that view and, indeed, strengthened it. Consider this passage from Jonathan Freedland's column today:

The Brownites always loathed Blair's "respect agenda", regarding anti-social behaviour orders as dismal and sacking Blair's respect tsar. But Brown devoted a full page and a half of today's text to the topic, more than on foreign policy, defence and climate change combined.

So there were crowd-pleasing promises to crack down on Britain's "50,000 most chaotic families" and to set up "supervised homes" for teenage mothers. Shades of the Magdalene Sisters, but such talk has focus-grouped well, and, I'm told, Labour's polling suggests voters are sick and tired of doing their bit only to see others "play by different rules or no rules at all", as Brown put it.

In so doing, the prime minister duly revived what had been one of New Labour's defining ideas, captured in that slogan conceived by Brown and delivered by Blair: "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." It paid dividends 15 years ago, and Brown is wagering it will work once more.

But it won't. Not least because the Tories got there first. The problem with the Gulags for Slags approach is that it concedes that the Tory analysis of Britain's so-called "Broken Society" is more or less correct. Having done that, the Prime Minister then wants us to believe that the party that's had 13 years to solve these problems should be awarded a mulligan and given four more years to make good their 13 year failure.

Good luck with selling that. It can't be done because running against your own record asks the public to prove themselves fools. Only some of them will be kind enough to oblige you. 

And so, here we have it: a series of supposedly crowd-pleasing initiatives designed to give Labour a tactical bounce in the short-term but that actually plays into the hands of Tory strategy. In other words: it's a foolish ploy that invites defeat.

Now incumbants offer suffer this problem. John McCain, for instance, had to run against George W Bush's record but at least he wasn't responsible for that record. Gordon Brown is asking us to forgive him his ministry's failures and pretend they never happened.

Nor does the Prime Minister help his cause when he tries to peddle obvious nonsense. Consider these lines from his interviews today:

"I accept we are the insurgents, we are not the incumbents."

Oh come off it. There's a difference between accepting your underdog status and trying to pretend that you're actually the opposition. No-one can be convinced by this.


"I am as open and honest as possible. I don't parade my family around the place. I came from a pretty ordinary background in Scotland." 

So who was that introducing your speech yesterday? Ah yes, your wife, twittering away that you were "no saint" but still her "hero". Voters can see this stuff too, you know, and they can appreciate that is just makes you look ridiculous.

And while, yes, it might be hard to win the election:

"Everything has been hard. My life has been about fighting against difficulties that sometimes appear insuperable."

Well, we all have out crosses to bear. But I doubt this lugubrious self-pity is quite what the public demands from a Prime Minister. Indeed, some voter might think that it's a bit rich for the Prime freakin' Minister to complain about how hard everything has been.

I mean, what with all the talk about the PM and his alleged use of happy pills, one doesn't want to say he's off his head but it would be much easier to avoid that thought if Mr Brown didn't give such a good impression of a man struggling to maintain any kind of grip on reality.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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