Alex Massie

Gordon Brown is Jimmy Carter

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Sure, his conference speech tried to meld elements from both the McCain and Obama campaigns, but the Prime Minister's micro-management and control-freakery is more reminiscent of the poor old Georgian peanut farmer. Consider this telling anecdote from Martin Kettle's column in the Guardian today:

And then there's the dysfunctionality in Downing Street itself. The briefing and counter-briefing these days make journalism easy. A few weeks ago, one official confided an extraordinary story to me. Four years ago, ministers decided that Britain's South Atlantic island possession of St Helena needed to have an airport. If planes could land on the tiny island, more than 1,200 miles from the nearest continent, its economic and demographic decline could perhaps be turned around. Plans began to be made. The airport was scheduled to open in 2010.

Earlier this year, the Foreign Office finally asked the Department for International Development to sign off on the airport. The file went up to the secretary of state, Douglas Alexander. But instead of giving the go-ahead himself, Alexander was required to pass the decision up to Downing Street. Brown insisted on reading all the papers in the St Helena file and afterwards asked personally to see all the tender documents, in case they did not give value for money. I am told the papers remain in Downing Street and that no final decision has yet been taken.

It would be hard to find a better example of a decision that a prime minister in times of trouble should not waste his time on and one that should be delegated to ministers. What would Napoleon have said? But the St Helena episode has become a Whitehall byword for a lethal combination of micromanagement and indecision.

Now, sure, you could argue this shows a commendable attention to detail and desire to ensure value-for-money and so on. You could argue that, but, really, you'd be hard-pressed to make the case without giggling. It's not just the credit markets that have seized up...

[Hat-tip: James Forsyth]

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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