Rob Wilson is MP for Reading East and Shadow Minister for Higher Education.
Political correspondents, media commentators, blogs and MPs at Westminster have been awash in recent days with comparisons between Gordon Brown and John Major. I have been surprised at how quickly this has become the accepted wisdom, certainly within the ‘Westminster village’. Of course, it has superficial attractions as Labour MPs were merciless in repeating their charge of dithering at John Major and who can forget Norman Lamont ‘s phrase about his Government giving the impression of being "in office but not in power"? These proved devastating and the charges of drift and dither are now hurting Gordon Brown. But is the comparison as real as it superficially appears?
John Major arrived in Downing Street having served his time as a Minister and having held, albeit briefly, two of the great offices of state, namely Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Gordon Brown had no Ministerial experience in 1997 and was parachuted straight into the job of Chancellor. During his ten year spell at the Treasury, Brown, as recent autobiographies make clear, spent his time at war with Tony Blair, using his position at the Treasury to undermine his leader and to seek the top job for himself; as John Redwood said recently, "scratching at the plaster of the walls of No 11"! Brown did not have the experience that a variety of Government posts brings, spending his days bunkered down in the Treasury and issuing his edicts to civil servants and Ministers alike.
John Major did not plot against Margaret Thatcher and did not spend
every waking moment seeking to undermine her, so that he could claim
his “rightful place” (as Brown saw it). After Thatcher stepped down,
John Major was fully tested electorally. First, he fought and won a
testing leadership election, offering his alternative vision for the
future of the Party to a sophisticated electorate of Conservative MPs,
taking on serious heavyweight alternatives in Michael Heseltine and
Douglas Hurd. Second, he fought and won an election in 1992 with the
highest recorded total number of votes ever for the Conservatives.
People knew what John Major stood for and what he wanted for his
Unfortunately Gordon Brown has not achieved either of these things. In fact he
bullied potential challengers in the Labour Party to stay out of the
leadership race, ensuring he had a clear run. Brown ripped the position
of Prime Minister from the hands of his Party without being tested,
merely uttering a sequence of vague platitudes. When he had the early
opportunity to put his position to the test and ask the country for
confirmation via a General Election, as we know, he bottled it. He said
he wanted to have more time to show the country his vision, but the
country is still waiting impatiently for anything resembling a vision.
In fact, John Major’s Government lasted for seven years and, despite Black
Wednesday, governed competently. It was rather the allegations of
sleaze that ended with the rout in 1997. Had it not been competent and
had Ministers lost control of their Departments, it would have fallen
earlier. Brown’s downfall, and let’s put this politely, is not the ‘off
stage incidents’. It’s the incompetence of his Government and its
Ministers. The list to draw from over the past year is endless. A few
examples include the loss of data disks containing the details of 26
million families, abolishing the 10p tax band, the botched Inheritance
and Capital Gains Tax changes, letting prisoners out early, having an
illegal immigrant guarding the Prime Minister’s car and so it goes on.
As Richard Littlejohn might say, "you couldn’t make it up!"
For a man that has written so extensively about courage, no-one could
foresee Brown doing what John Major did in 1995 when he resigned to
face down his critics. You can argue whether it was the right course of
action, but it was certainly an act of political courage. Would Brown
throw down the guantlet to Charles Clarke, Stephen Byers or Frank Field
in the same way? Of course not, because he fears the democratic process
and decisions made outside his own control.
In post war politics, it is often said, John Major’s Government was one
of the worst. In fact, despite the handicaps of 1992-97 it governed
competently and moved the country forward. It’s still early days but
Brown’s tenure looks to be limited and may fail to achieve anything
concrete. If the chatterers in the Westminster Village are looking for
comparisons they might wish to refer a little further back to 1976 and
the Callaghan Government.
Now there’s a stinker of a post war Government with which Gordon Brown’s own might well bear comparison.