Is it me, or has everyone gone ‘leadership potty’ lately? When David Cameron was elected Tory leader he smelled of roses. Then he was dubbed a lightweight with no principles. Now, he is a winner again, riding high in the polls and triumphing in by-elections by capitalising on anger over New Labour’s scrapping of the 10p tax rate. This is something he would never have introduced and is therefore not promising to re-instate. Go figure.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, during the latter stages of his long struggle to take over the Blair mantle, was depicted as a swarthy Chancellor whose gravitas would sweep the young Conservative pretender aside, reconnect Labour’s disenchanted grassroots, and renew the purpose of a government mired in Iraq and spin. Now, it seems, the Prime Minister can do no right. Even the discovery that he privately phones some members of the public when they write to him was dubbed ‘cynical opportunism’ – though it turns out he’s been doing it for years.
Derek Draper, the former government lobbyist who came to attention during Blair’s first ‘cash for access’ row, subsequently re-emerging as a born again psychotherapist, reckons Brown is now trapped in the prism of an irrational media narrative that says he is irrevocably unpopular. ‘If he walked down Whitehall handing out red roses he'd be clobbered by the Mail for inciting hay fever, the Sun for putting kids at risk from thorns, and the Guardian for using roses grown at the expense of the water needs of Kenyans.’
What’s going on, Draper suggests, is that the PM’s lack of tradable charm, combined with an economic downturn that is making people uncertain and desperate, has produced a herd ‘it must be the leader’ instinct. Many would say Labour’s malaise goes far deeper than that. But there’s no doubt that the media hunts in packs and that mild hysteria can grip the corridors of Westminster when an established political class senses forces beyond its control.
Government advisers are thinking in two directions. Some fear the next election is already lost, and believe Brown should stop craving popularity and act as he truly believes. Others suggest he can stay the course, because infatuation with Cameron will evaporate as soon as he is looked to for answers rather than questions. Serious coup plotters remain thin on the ground but ready to pounce.
Someone viewing all this from the USA, where Barack Obama has become totemic for ‘a new kind of politics’, is evangelical social activist Jim Wallis, who flew here recently to talk with politicians and church leaders about ‘faith beyond partisanship’ in the public square. He still believes Brown can be a figure of hope on the international stage, especially on poverty, the Middle East and climate change. But first the PM has to convince an antagonistic domestic media, and the nation, that he is part of our future rather than an echo of the past.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. This article appears in the July edition of the re-launched Third Way magazine, as the 'Westminster Watch' column.