“My Life, Our Times,” is Gordon Brown’s latest political contribution and second autobiography. His first instalment was rather pedestrian and this edition is only a modest improvement. It does however, cast one’s mind back to the last time a government was being shaped by events rather than shaping them.
Brown’s greatest hits, of which there are few, were all scored while he was Chancellor. His premiership was, at best, underwhelming particularly for someone who had coveted the job for so long and had been a key player in the great election winning machinery that was New Labour. When the ball was finally flung in his direction he was paralysed by an adversity to risk which is rarely conducive to succeeding in the top job. But one flunked decision, and supposedly his biggest lost opportunity, needs to be revaluated following a different decision by a different Prime Minister ten years later: Brown’s failure to hold an early election in autumn 2007. Accepted wisdom decided that Brown made a catastrophic error by not banking his 2007 honeymoon poll lead; however, Theresa May showed us this wisdom was wrong.
Like Brown, May replaced a more charismatic, media friendly leader from her own party without a general election. Like Brown she enjoyed an immediate surge in poll ratings as an apparently refreshing and earnest break from the past. Better than Brown, her poll lead was larger and she faced a much less capable leader across the dispatch box. The lure of an early poll proved irresistible but the outcome was disastrous.
Nearly every commentator agreed from the outset that May would increase her majority. The only dispute was by how much. Most political choices can be measured against the success of decisions of the past, even in fast changing times; however, few paused to stop and consider that May was attempting something no Prime Minister had ever done – bring forward a honeymoon election on the strength of opinion polls. Neither Major or Douglas-Home had a choice in the timing of their elections and neither had a poll lead from the outset.
There we certain things that we did however know, and it should have rung alarm bells. Every Prime Minister and, indeed, Leader of the Opposition enjoy an immediate lift in the polls upon taking office. This phenomenon tends to occur regardless of the new leader’s personal qualities, events of the day or popularity of opponents. The political honeymoon is a fickle thing and disappears as rapidly as it forms with insufficient rigour to withstand a particularly probing event.
Political honeymoons are based on rather illusory feelings and the suspension of priorities that voters otherwise hold dear at elections. In summer 2007 Gordon Brown enjoyed the warm glow of a new-broom and status as a clunking fist with gravitas. The former was plainly incorrect, Brown having already been at the heart of government for 10 years, and a clunking fist with gravitas is the very opposite of election winning charisma like his predecessor. Theresa May revelled in a reputation as strong and stable following the Brexit referendum and a “bloody difficult woman” fighting for Britain. There was never any evidence for the strong and stable mantra, as the election revealed, and “bloody difficult” was never going to be an election winner.
For Brown, the probing event that burst the bubble was the collapse of Northern Rock and Labour donor scandals in late 2007 – events he was powerless to stop once they began to unravel. For May it was the scrutiny of the general election campaign an event that was entirely self-induced. Had Brown inflicted an election upon himself prior to Northern Rock then the events of June 2017 show us that his poll lead would have evaporated like May’s, and the Cameron/Clegg coalition would have very likely been ushered in three years earlier. Brown can finally sleep easy in the knowledge that there was no golden opportunity lost in summer 2007, rather an election siren call he managed to avoid.