3 Dec 2010

Gordon Brown: be careful what you wish for

As Gordon Brown prepares to publish his book amid a barrage of bad publicity, Gaby Hinsliff asks how different events might have been if the former prime minister hadn’t taken the top job.

Gordon Brown: be careful what you wish for

If there is really no such thing as bad publicity, Gordon Brown’s publishers must have had a happy week.

Just in time for the launch of his book on the global financial crisis, the former prime minister’s name is everywhere: just not quite in the terms he might wish.

Leaked US diplomatic cables paint an unflattering picture of dwindling influence both abroad and at home. His protégé Douglas Alexander implies he fatally fumbled the electoral attack on Cameron. Is now really the time for a book rehabilitating Brown?

History may be kinder than contemporary accounts. But contemplating the Brown legacy does raise one intriguing question: what might Brown have been, had he not got what he most desired?

Imagine the scene: it’s autumn 2006 and instead of gritting his teeth for a transition to Brown, Tony Blair decides to gamble everything on a real contest in which he doesn’t back his Chancellor.

The ensuing civil war is grim but not quite terminal as it turns out the furious Brown camp specialise in guerrilla attacks, not open warfare. Brown abandons Westminster for a high level international job, at the IMF or the World Bank: new leader David Miliband (or Ed, or the other Ed, or maybe even Harriet Harman) is duly crowned.

Is he a classic lesson in being very, very careful what you wish for?

Older Cabinet hands are pensioned off in a process of renewal pitching the ‘new generation’ into key jobs, including the Treasury. Then the credit crunch hits, and a novice administration faces a run on the banks. Suddenly, the new government looks like they inherited a booming economy and turned it into a crash.

Meanwhile Brown has spent a year seeking solace in the only way he knows: hard work. When the banking system implodes, he is thus one of the few international figures instantly to grasp the new threat.

Gossip leaks out about panicking phone calls from Number 10 to Brown begging for advice.

Labour MPs become almost nostalgic for their ‘nearly man’, now the international powerbroker behind a worldwide bank rescue – and the man who got out of Downing Street just in time.

Impossibly farfetched? Maybe. But it’s arguable that Brown’s economic and political reputation peaked as Chancellor: his weaknesses – an inability to capture the public imagination, stormy interpersonal relationships with others – were mercilessly exposed in Number 10.

Is he a classic lesson in being very, very careful what you wish for?

Gaby Hinsliff is former Political Editor of the Observer.