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Gordon Brown: PM 2007-2013

Veteran BBC political reporter James Cox imagines where we'd be today had Gordon Brown called an election for October 2008 – and won.

Gordon Brown cc World Economic Forum


In both 2007 and 2008 the Labour Party autumn conferences were dominated by speculation that Prime Minister Gordon Brown might call an early election. Veteran BBC political reporter James Cox imagines where we'd be today had there been an election in October 2008.


Gordon Brown's decision to go for a snap election on October 23rd 2008 must be seen as one of the most daring gambles of modern political history; doubly surprising in that it was made by a man almost pathologically opposed to political gambles


All the speculation had been about the previous year. They talked of little else at Labour’s annual conference in Bournemouth, 2007. Brown had succeeded Tony Blair in June – elected unopposed – and many felt he needed democratic legitimacy, both from the party and the nation. He was enjoying a “honeymoon bounce” in the opinion polls. There were economic clouds on the horizon, but for now the prospect seemed sunny.


His electoral strategists had done all the spade-work; they had even checked the weather and the time of sunset for an election on October 25th, and told him he could win it. Many of his MPs were enthusiastic to take advantage of the opportunity to cement their position in power. A Labour campaign was launched with the slogan “not Flash, just Gordon”, as if to emphasise the change from the previous leadership.


Then, suddenly, he called it all off. Or, as many people put it, “he bottled it”. It may always remain a mystery as to why, though some refer to his instinctive caution. But one likely contributory factor was his profound knowledge of Labour history. He remembered how, in 1970, Harold Wilson, buoyed by encouraging opinion polls and nervous of a coming economic down-turn, went to the country early – and lost, to Ted Heath. Mr Brown wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.


As predicted, storms battered his Government in 2008. The collapse of Northern Rock was but an early precursor of what was to come. Some economists blamed Labour – and Brown as the former chancellor – for creating this inhospitable climate. The opinion poll lead melted away. In the 2008 local and European elections, the party suffered severe reversals.


On September 15th, Lehman Brothers collapsed – just days before the Labour conference. In his conference speech, Brown talked at length about putting country before party. And then, the great shock – he announced he would call an election for October 23rd, in just four weeks’ time.


Critics accused him of opportunism – even some of the same critics who, a year before, had accused him of “bottling it”. Brown said an election would leave Britain stronger as it prepared to weather the storm. And, in a dig at his two main opponents, he told the conference “This is no time for novices”.


Again, Brown’s real motivations remain mysterious. It is true that in David Cameron, who became Tory leader in December 2005, and Nick Clegg, who acceded to lead the Liberal Democrats in December 2007, he had two still untried and largely unknown opponents. But they had both been elected, and he may have felt more urgently the need to legitimise his own position.


There may have been other reasons too. Brown was a controversial leader of a party riven by factions, Blairites and Brownites. 2008 saw rumours of plotting against him already – Harriet Harman and David Milliband were both said to be considering leadership bids. Or perhaps the “bottling it” jibe stung.


But again his sense of history may have influenced him – this time the spectre was not Wilson in 1970 but Callaghan in 1978/9. Jim Callaghan – a politician who had certain aspects in common with Brown – faced tough economic times, and the “winter of discontent” in 1978. He was strongly urged to call an election to give himself a renewed mandate, his opponent being the relatively untried and little known Margaret Thatcher.


Instead Callaghan teased the TUC congress by singing them the old music hall song “There was I, waiting at the church…” before announcing he was going on with his Government’s fifth year. But in doing so, he lost control of events; a Parliamentary revolt by the Scottish Nationalists brought him down, and he lost the subsequent election to Mrs Thatcher.


Partly perhaps with that in mind, Brown seized the day in 2008, and won with a slender majority, with the electorate feeling either that he was still the best man to cope with the economic circumstances, or perhaps that he was responsible for the mess, so he should clear it up.


The history of the last five years is still fresh in memory. Brown’s leadership of the 2009 G20 in London led him to be acclaimed by his peers, notably by Angela Merkel. He himself, rather presumptuously (or perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue), said he had “saved the world”. He took some awesomely unpopular decisions, often at the expense of the people who elected him, though he was able to take cover behind Vince Cable – the chief Economic spokesman for the Liberal Democrats – who often urged harder economic choices than Brown wanted to propose himself. (Brown and Cable were both allies and rivals. Cable’s jest about Stalin and Mr Bean damaged Brown a great deal, but they had been old acquaintances in Scotland, when Cable, then a member of the Labour party, contributed to Brown’s Red Book for Scotland.)


Above all, Brown set out to be a kind of “father of the nation”, with his repeated mantra that “we are all in this together” – a claim which certainly could never have been echoed by David Cameron and his Bullingdon Club intimates.


Another subtle political decision by Brown was to declare that this Parliament would last a full five-year term – thus taking away his prime ministerial power to choose the date of an election at the most propitious time, but reassuring the world that this Government was confident enough not to have to cut and run.


So when, by 2012, some sparse green shoots of recovery began to be seen (though with Norman Lamont in mind, that metaphor could never be used), he still had to survive a further year in office, and at a time when it had become established wisdom that the laws of international economics clearly superseded the requirements of domestic politicians.


By now the entire British political climate had changed significantly. Cameron’s failure to win against an unpopular Government in 2008 was never forgiven by the Tories, who dismissed him as ruthlessly as they had his predecessors William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard. It seemed almost certain that Boris Johnson would achieve his longed-for prize of the party leadership, but in a peculiarly quixotic move, he decided to seek, and win, a second term as Mayor of London, not least (his critics suspected) so that he could grandstand it over the British Olympics in 2012. It also meant that he would leave office as Mayor in 2016, just in time to position himself for the leadership before the 2018 election.


Bereft of this choice, the Tories turned to Liam Fox, whose right-wing, anti-immigration and anti-European tendencies chimed with many in his party. It also had the happy effect of totally side-lining rival right-wing outfits such as the BNP and UKIP, who have as a result virtually vanished from the scene. On the other hand it did mean there have been periodic rumours, and sometimes more than rumours, of liberal and pro-European Tories flirting with defection to the Liberal Democrats.


The Lib Dems also changed leaders. Nick Clegg was seen as having been eclipsed in the public mind by Vince Cable as the real voice of the party. The energetic Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott, who had vigorously promoted the candidacy of Chris Huhne against Clegg, now switched to promoting Cable, this time with more success. Cable was initially reluctant to take the job, feeling he was too old for it, but he was persuaded that part of the malaise of British politics is that so many of its leading lights are relatively youthful (at least compared to previous generations) and have been brought up as professional politicians who have never known much of what is called “the real world”.


Faced by these new faces at the top, Gordon Brown himself began to look like a bit of a dinosaur. There were well-authenticated reports of temper tantrums in No 10, of flying telephones and finger-nails chewed till they bled. Brown’s chief spokesman and spin doctor, Damian McBride, had become as disliked and mistrusted as his predecessor Alistair Campbell.


So Gordon Brown (it is said influenced by his immediate family) took his third most momentous, and in many ways most uncharacteristic, decision – he announced that he would stand down as prime minister. Maybe he hoped to imply it was “job done”, though in the subsequent leadership contest, Brown made it clear that he favoured his lieutenant Ed Balls. But Balls was a controversial and not universally popular figure, and the Brown connection did him few favours. In the end he decided to stand aside and his wife, Yvette Cooper, stood as an alternative, possibly a surrogate, figure. In the contest against David Miliband and his brother Ed, David Miliband did well in the parliamentary party and among the membership, but Cooper sneaked ahead with the trade union vote. Ed Miliband, beaten into a poor third, announced he was leaving Parliament to seek a job abroad.


Some are talking about Ms Cooper as Labour’s answer to Margaret Thatcher. Others fear she may well be just that.


So today we face an election on October 23rd with no certain outcome. The pundits predict a hung Parliament. But none of the party leaders are even prepared to speculate what they might do in such an event – they seem to think it an admission of weakness to admit the possibility of anything other than outright victory. The chance of parties actually working together is never considered.


The worst outcome would surely be some rushed deal, spatch-cocked together behind closed doors, instead of the mature, lengthy but exhaustive process of forming a stable coalition which is and has been for years so successfully practised by most of our European neighbours, most recently by Angela Merkel in Germany.


In the words used so often by desperate BBC news reporters trying to round off a piece-to-camera when they have nothing more to say: “Only time will tell”.


What really happened: In our time line, Gordon Brown called the general election for May 6th 2010 and lost power to a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.


Do you think Gordon Brown would have won a majority had he called an election for October 2008? Would we now be facing an election with Yvette Cooper, Liam Fox and Vince Cable at the head of their parties? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

James Cox

About the Writer

James has been a journalist all his working life, in newspapers, radio and television, concentrating on political coverage and commentary. He began in Scotland, with the Daily Record and then BBC Scotland, charting the rise in nationalism and the start of devolution. After three years abroad, as the BBC’s New York Correspondent, he returned to London as a lobby correspondent at Westminster and as BBC Newsnight’s Political Editor. He ended up as main presenter of Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. Now retired from full-time journalism, he continues to write and broadcast and, freed from the BBC’s constraints of impartiality, is active in politics.


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