I’ve been musing about our beloved Prime Minister’s current woes. I mean, Gordon Brown has only been in office since June 2007, and despite a popularity surge in the first few days, his ratings have plunged. The Week magazine last week even had a cover cartoon of Gordon under the headline, IS BROWN FINISHED? That is remarkable after such a short time in office. To be prime minister is to be a member of a pretty select club – and one whose members are certain to have strong views about their fellow-members. We usually have to wait years for the diaries to be published to know more precisely what they are. But unfortunately, there are occasions when things are pretty transparent

There is something rather tragic about Gordon Brown – a man who has faced many challenges (including the death of one child and the pain of seeing another battle with cystic-fibrosis). But politically, it seems obvious to all that he has sulked for 10 years (during which he was one of the most authoritative and ‘successful’ Chancellors in British history) but now finds himself unable to keep a grip on the job he has for so long craved. There are stories floating around about his indecision and sleeplessness – exacerbated by the non-election of last October when there were all kinds of easily preventable rumours of an imminent snap election

The awful thing is that this sort of thing has happened before in post-war British politics – not once, but twice. And worse, each time, the PM’s predecessor has taken a rather dim view of their successor. So it occurs to me that the person who follows a strong and long-lasting PM never really has a hope. There are simply too many hurdles to overcome – populist fatigue with the partyin power, too longfor ambitions to fester and dreams to become bitter, not enough innovation and creativity, the constant comparisons etc etc

Churchill & Eden

After Churchill’s 2nd term as PM, Anthony Eden was the natural, and even glamorous, choice as successor (pictured here standing behind Churchill at the (in)famous post-war carve up otherwise known as Yalta). He had been a very influential Foreign Secretary during both Churchill’s premierships, and if he had never become PM, would have remained renowned and celebrated. Instead, he has gone down as possibly the worst PM in decades. But during the years before his succession, Eden smoldered in frustration. Churchill simply wouldn’t retire (despite already being 77 when he began his 2nd term).

But it seems that an aspect of Churchill’s reluctance was a lack of confidence in Eden’s abilities. The fantastic diaries written by Churchill’s long-standing secretary, Sir John Colville (Fringes of Power – it’s a fascinating read – highly recommended), give a remarkable insight into this. On the night before Churchill resigned, he was host to the Queen & Prince Philip for dinner party at No 10 (a rare privilege since they don’t do that sort of thing very often). After everyone had gone, Winston went upstairs to his bedroom, followed by Colville. This is what Colville recorded that day:

He sat on his bed, still wearing his garter, order of merit and knee breeches. For several minutes he did not speak. Then suddenly he stared at me with vehemence: ‘I don’t believe Anthony can do it.’ His prophecies have often tended to be borne out by events. (Fringes of Power, 1985 p662)

There have been others who didn’t last long it – Home after Macmillan was doomed after the Profumo scandal, and a bit of a deadloss and didn’t last long; Callaghan after Wilson seemed equally doomed. But soon came Major after Thatcher

Thatcher & Major

By all accounts, Major is a decent enough bloke. But few predicted that he would end up as Thatcher’s chosen successor in 1990. His rise was, to coin a cliche, meteoric. Having been Foreign Secretary for only 3 months, he then became Chancellor, in post for just over a year until he slipped through the net to become PM

Amazingly, he held onto power for 7 years – but the issue of Europe dogged his every step, as the EU sought ever greater integration. And of course, this was the grounds of the hostility from his indomitable predecessor. Almost from the moment he took over, she was trying to come to terms with her rapid downfall – and became a rallying point for the Eurosceptics in the party (about whom Major had a particularly colourful way of talking). Because she was a conviction politician, whereas he was perhaps at best a consensus politician, a conflict over a point of disagreement was inevitable. Personal loyalty wouldn’t come into it for her, if important issues were at stake. And so Major found himself constantly fighting on various flanks. The 1992 election was Labour’s to lose really, and yet the Tories won – but in many ways perhaps onlyprolonged his agonyas the result of having a Commons majority of only 21 (down from a 102-majority). The point of all this though is to show that it was impossible for him ever to eclipse, let alone, match the record and impact of his predecessor. Which brings us to the most recent pair. It felt doomed from the start

Blair & Brown

There is all kinds of gossip and mythology about the so-called Granita Pact. The common assumption has been that after the death of John Smith, Blair and Brown agreed to let Blair have a straight run for the Labour leadership, but that there would be a timetable for handover. But as most people agree, they have different recollections of this deal – hence the conflict and simmering frustrations. The parallels with Churchill & Eden therefore seem quite strong.

I suppose the reason this has been buzzing around my random mind is that I’ve been reading Alistair Campbell’s diaries – they’re pretty interesting as well, though nothing like as astute and consistently insightful as Jock Colville’s. What is clear is how much he has expunged about the frictions between Nos 10 & 11 – for the sake of Labour’s modesty while in power. But there is enough here to make reading between the lines pretty easy. And there were certainly moments when Blair considered sacking Brown from the Chancellorship – but he could never quite bring himself to do it

Whatever happens, we will find out what Blair thinks of the Brown years at some point by one means or another. I just feel that Brown was on to a loser from the start – as the history of his many predecessors constantly indicates. It would have taken quite a (rare) political genius with a sure touch and fine intellect to pull off the job after 10 years of Blair. If only he’d been able to lay aside his simmering ambitions and find contentment in what he had achieved as Chancellor, perhaps we’d all be better off

Which of course sounds incredibly naive and pathetic – let alone unrealistic. After all, you don’t get to the top of the tree without being driven. But it all goes to show, yet again, that the great Teacher of Ecclesiastes had it right all the time. He expresses what perhaps is keeping Gordon Brown awake at night as well as what is perhaps going through Tony Blair’s mind.

12 Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom,
and also madness and folly.
What more can the king’s successor do
than what has already been done?

18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2 NIV)

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Adam

    Wow, that’s a great quote out of Ecclesiastes! Nice job digging that one up.

    We’ve got the same phenomenon over here in the States with the failure, for instance, of Johnson after Kennedy and Bush I after Reagan. (You could potentially also include Ford after Nixon, but there were other circumstances there to consider, too.) I think one of the reasons for it is humanity’s longing for the best running up against earthly rulers’ inability to provide the best. The people get tired of the latter, and when a new hope (a successor) from the old party obviously can’t provide it, they quickly give up on that party.

  2. Ross

    Sorry but I can’t disagree more about Adam’s Kennedy Johnson parallel.
    To me Johnson was one of the great reforming presidents in US history – he actually accomplished far more that Kennedy did or would have done.
    I do agree that it is a good and appropriate use of Ecclesiastes though!

    But neither of these points are my main concern.

    Your post said:
    “It would have taken quite a (rare) political genius with a sure touch and fine intellect to pull off the job after 10 years of Blair.”

    Now I could be smug here and claim that I (but I was not alone) predicted many of Brown’s problems – for example, he was not as left of Blair as a lot of Labour people wished him to be; he is as, if not more, autocratic/ controlling in leadership style, and so on.

    However, the main problem is not his political skill or intellect. Like Major a big part of the problem is charisma – I’d say it is not so much strong followed by weak but charasmatic follwed by a lot less charisma. I know that seems a bit superficial, btu in our media obsessed agen having a TV friendly face is hugely important.

    Of course initally this very difference is what makes the successor appealing – but experience shows that soon wears off and ultimately peole do want charasmatic leaders! (I won’t go into the Biblical parallels here of the danger of charasmatic leaders – Sampson, Saul, etc. but they are numerous).

    The other issue is that people need a vision and the successors you highlight in your post were often pragmatists – or as you described Major a consensus politician – i.e. one who is not willing to drive his will over that of others.

    It’s interesting therefore to note that before Brown became PM so many of the hopes people had for him were that he would have a ‘big idea’. Of course his big idea turned out to be to do little things well (e.g deep clean hospitals) whch of course is hardly exciting. This is in contast with Blair of course who yu cuold say had too many big ideas!

    So maybe another Bible verse is appropriate:
    Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18)

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