In Office, But Not In Power

Gordon in AgonyBeating up on Gordon Brown has all the appeal of shooting roadkill. The corpse may be twitching still, but it is still a corpse: obliterating it further is unnecessary. The Prime Minister must know on some level that his time in office has been a tragic failure, an epic tale of ambition running ahead of ability.

There are those who have less qualms than I do, however: yesterday was a very bad day for Brown. First, he committed the latest in a series of faux pas at Prime Minister’s Question Time: he seemed to suggest that if a General Election was called right now, that the Conservatives would win. This is true, but it is a truth that he cannot admit in front of the Labour Party or the country. David Cameron pounced on the Freudian slip and labelled Brown both a catastrophe and a coward.

Meanwhile, Brown was forced to walk back from remarks he had made about his own Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears. It seems odd that the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the leader of the Labour Party would be afraid of an ideological and ministerial pipsqueak like Blears, but nevertheless, his previously derogatory comments about her expenses were brushed under the carpet, and he commended the job she had been doing.

If the Prime Minister thought he could unwind at the Confederation of British Industry dinner in the evening, he was sorely mistaken. The outgoing president, Martin Broughton, commended the Government on taking the necessary steps to salvage the banking system, but then proceeded to condemn the Government’s “economic vandalism”, in particular, the levying of a new, higher rate of income tax.

Of course, these are just the items in the public domain. One wonders what the hidden fallout has been from pushing out Commons Speaker Michael Martin: after all, he is an old Scottish Labour ally, and Brown deserted him. The resulting by-election is likely to be bloody. The Labour Party is trying to hold together a united front, but movement is perceptible, rather like a gaggle of mongeese inside a canvas sack: while there is some uniformity to the surface, we can make out the savage wriggling, clawing, and biting underneath. Brown tries to launch new initiatives to change the narrative; however, none of these are getting traction: no one is interested. He may have all the trappings of authority: the Downing Street address, the walk up the grand staircase full of portraits of former leaders, the wide desk and the obsequious Civil Servants. However, he is merely in office, not in power.

We have been here before. In 1997, John Major’s government had similarly run out of steam. My memory of the period may be faulty, however I don’t recall the same level of public disgust with Major back then as I see with Brown now. In 1997, the country had come to the judgement, rightly or wrongly, that Major was a decent man, but his party was throughly indecent and punished them accordingly. The country now seems to believe that both Brown and the party he represents are useless wastrels who are pestering the nation far beyond their sell-by date.

There are examples of this phenomenon in other countries; “in office, but not in power” is part of the model in some instances. In the United States, there is a Presidential transition period in excess of three months. Between November 2008 and January 2009, the only authority George W. Bush really had was to sign Christmas cards; as much as it may have pained him to merely prop up the auto companies until President Obama took office, that was the right thing to do. Bush’s authority had run its course, the best he could do was ensure things did not get any worse before the new leadership could take charge and make the required decisions.

Sometimes the “in office, but not in power” scenario can linger for years. The example of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány springs to mind. In 2006, he told a private meeting of the Hungarian Socialist Party, of which he was leader, “we have obviously been lying for the last one and a half to two years”. Yet, he was not forced out of office until March 2009; the Hungarian Socialists are theoretically still in control. Yet the economic crisis means they are limping towards political destruction at the next election too; their dumping of Gyurcsány was a mere rearrangement of the Titanic’s proverbial deck chairs.

From a psychological point of view, the phenomenon is fascinating in the instances in which simultaneous impotence and grandeur are voluntary. No one is forcing Brown to continue: considering the battering he receives on a day to day basis, his resignation would be understood, if not greeted with some level of sympathy. However, the appearance of power apparently means so much to him that he is willing to cling on even though there are very limited means by which he can improve his plight or that of the nation. The Treasury is empty. The IMF says the road to economic recovery is going to be long and painful. Labour is at level pegging with the bizarre little UK Independence Party in some polls. The rhetorical vultures are circling. However, somehow he is able to convince himself that he is riding the wave rather than being swept underneath it. Why does he indulge in such idle fantasy? There we must venture into the realms of speculation. First, he has prided himself on being a “Son of the Manse”. Perhaps he believes he is living up to some impossible father image, or is continually under psychological assault from the voice of his father, which tells him to persist even beyond the point where continuance is futile. Perhaps after ten years of striving to get into the office, he cannot bring himself to part with it just yet, and believes that every day, every minute, every hour, every second in which he holds the title is as precious and sweet as honeyed wine. None of these explanations, however, are comforting, because they indicate an inward, rather than outward focus: he is there for himself, rather than out of a genuine sense of altruism.

The Labour Party requires him to depart, so it can salvage something of its reputation. The economy needs him to leave, as his stewardship has been thoroughly discredited: no one wants to bank with a loser. Parliament desperately desires his disappearance, as it is impossible to make a clean break with its recent past without a thorough change in the top ranks. The public wants him to go because in order to have hope, it needs to have someone who isn’t associated with the present despair. But this is the one sacrifice, the one hint of love of country that Brown will not yield. He will continue to inflict himself on us.

I will be shocked if I am wrong; I do not expect a General Election before June 2010, the absolute last date that one can be called. Brown’s strategy has been reduced to a Dickensian one, namely that of Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield: he’s hopeful something will turn up, particularly the economy, despite the fact that his reason and every shred of evidence should tell him otherwise. Thus the Labour Party and Government slouches towards its own destruction, with the weariness of a prisoner that has been on Death Row too long and has contemplated the end too fervently. Those of us outside the tragedy will breathe a sigh of relief once it ends, however it ends, so long as it ends.

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