Gordon Brown’s Big Tent

Argus title : Brown can still right his wrongs

Readers of this column will know that I quite like Gordon Brown. I respect his competence and by and large, I think he’s honest. However, recently he’s made several errors.

When he came to power, colleagues who wished him well, advised him to simply be himself. The media and his Blairite enemies attacked him, calling him a “control freak” and “clunking fist”. They urged him to be “inclusive” (put Blairites in positions of power) and “loosen the reins” (let them do what they want).

In the event, Brown seems to be more of a democrat than Blair. He has re-instituted proper cabinet government and consults ministerial colleagues in a way that Blair never did. However, he appears to have also allowed those around him a wider degree of leeway than perhaps was wise.

The drive by Brown’s younger colleagues to have a snap election in November was something which, it seems, began largely as a ploy to rattle the Tories, who were trailing in the polls. Labour wasn’t ready for an election, not least because it didn’t have enough money and Brown hadn’t had time to set out his stall. The idea should have been knocked on the head on the first day of the Labour Party Conference. Instead it was allowed to drift until the decision to withdraw looked like cowardice or indecision.

Even then the situation could have been retrieved. Gordon Brown himself had never said he wanted an early election. He could have told parliament that the farcical debate and media frenzy of recent days had convinced him (as it had many other people) that no prime minister should have the power to call an election at a time suiting him or her – or under pressure from colleagues, opposition parties or the media.

A promise to introduce legislation ensuring that all future governments operate to fixed terms would have taken the wind out of the opposition’s sails and delivered a firm rebuke to his over-enthusiastic lieutenants. It didn’t happen and an opportunity was lost.

One of the key mistakes of Brown’s less experienced colleagues was that they seem to have believed the media honeymoon Brown was experiencing was real and would last. They seemed not to understand that a prime minister in the process of withdrawing troops from Iraq in defiance of the US, would be particularly vulnerable to attack in the form of destabilising media reports – especially from media barons like Rupert Murdoch, who had enthusiastically supported the war. It was perhaps no co-incidence that Murdoch visited Brown the weekend before he announced there would be no early election.

It was unjust that Brown was criticised for travelling to Iraq during the Tory Party Conference. The spin that was placed upon the visit by his opponents was that its purpose was to upstage Cameron. In fact the contrary is probably true. If Brown had been courting positive publicity for this potentially most popular of actions he would surely have waited until the media and public were no longer distracted by party conferences. Brown’s real error of judgment was not that he went to Iraq, knowing that the visit might be misinterpreted. It was that he succumbed to the temptation to inform the media of troop reductions before he told parliament, something he had promised never to do.

Here too, the situation could have been retrieved. When Brown did appear before parliament a few days later, all he needed to do was apologise. Unforced apologies by politicians are rare and would have marked out his premiership as something unusual. However, he did not apologise.

In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Labour’s poll position has slipped and that the Tories have gained – though interestingly their resurgence has largely been at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. What is clear from the polls is that the people still consider Brown a stronger leader than Cameron. However, this cannot last long in the face of sustained media assault and attacks by existing and former colleagues.

Sources “close to” Blair, including former Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, have already spoken out against Brown. Several Blairite former ministers, including Charles Clarke, are reported to be circling. Gisela Stuart, a Blairite former minister, accused Brown of “lacking veracity” calling his refusal to hold a referendum on the EU reform treaty “patently dishonest”.

Brown is under sustained pressure from Rupert Murdoch, who owns amongst other things, the News of the World, the Sun, the Times and Sunday Times and BSkyB. It is received wisdom in the Labour party that no government can win unless it has Murdoch ‘onside’. Blair believed this and kept very close to Murdoch.

Gordon Brown will not be the same sort of pushover and that, presumably, is why Murdoch has turned up the heat. The battleground on which he has chosen to flex his muscles is the European Reform Treaty. Murdoch wants a referendum and is prepared to squeeze Brown’s neck until he gets one.

Sky News coverage of Gordon Brown is already unfriendly, as are editorials in Murdoch newspapers. Murdoch is giving Brown just a taste of how things will be if he strays too far out of line.

One thing is certain. If Brown does choose to stand up to Murdoch or any other powerful external political force, he will not stand a chance against them unless he explains to the British people what he is doing and why.

He will need greater standards of discipline from his Labour colleagues. Above all, he will need to watch like a hawk the Tories and Blairites he has invited into his “political tent”.

It’s true that Labour has lifted some Tory ideas, not least on Inheritance Tax. However, it’s almost certainly also the case that Labour ideas have haemorrhaged out to the Tories. Brown needs to beware a situation in which he can be gazumped by Cameron before he is able to reveal Labour policy initiatives, and then is criticised for “stealing” Tory ideas when he announces them himself.

To my mind, Brown’s greatest mistake was to appoint Alan Johnson, surely the most over-promoted of Blairites, to the key post of Health Secretary. Faced with the crisis over Clostridium Difficile and the appalling treatment of elderly patients in Kent, 90 of whom died, his response was to assure parliament that this was an “isolated” case. Of course, it was not and he ought to have known this.

The Healthcare Commission has revealed that of 394 NHS organisations reviewed by them, there were 111 trusts where patients were not properly protected from infection. Common weak points were: protection of patients from healthcare-associated infection; decontamination of reusable medical devices; and design and maintenance of clean environments.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite allegations of interference in other departments, Brown had little real power to ensure that the money he was pumping into the NHS was being effectively spent. Now he does and there can be no excuses for getting it wrong.

As Prime Minister, Brown cannot afford to fail, for he will be judged by the standards of NHS care which exist at the time of the next election. He needs to have a strategy which clearly differentiates him from previous Tory and Labour governments. It is not enough that the first thing Brown did was to quietly commit himself not to privatise any more of the NHS. Most people don’t know he did this and anyway it was too little too late.

Brown needs to have the courage to step away from the Thatcherite policies which have destroyed the NHS, dividing the NHS into unaccountable trusts, putting competition and profit before clinical standards and nursing care. In the days when we had a genuinely national NHS, MRSA and Clostrium Difficile were virtually unknown. This was because cleaning services were managed not by private firms, but in house, under the control of ward sisters.

The first and most visible change Gordon Brown could make would be to bring all cleaning services in-house, putting them under the direct control of health professionals. The second change would be to bring groups of trusts under accountable regional management in order to reduce bureaucracy, increase clinical budgets and ensure consistent standards of care across the country.

As I approach the third anniversary of my father’s death I remember the treatment he received at local hospitals. Some of it was excellent, but much of it was appalling.

Brown needs to be careful when people such as I, who believe in the NHS, are beginning to be fearful of illness – and frankly terrified of growing old.

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