Gordon Brown is a quivering jelly of indecision
My friends, I have a feeling that everyone is under some misapprehension.
People seem to assume that the Prime Minister is cunningly manipulating events. They think he is some gigantic puppetmaster, ingeniously pulling our strings as he prepares for his “snap” election.
That’s why we are seeing the ballot boxes wiped down on the TV news. That’s why troop withdrawal announcements are being brilliantly and disgracefully spun. That’s why ad space is booked and halls reserved and Labour candidates are even now being thrust on constituencies.
The world assumes that the die is cast; and yet if you talk to Labour MPs they will admit the awful truth – namely, that even at this eleventh hour, at the climax of the Tory conference, the Prime Minister has yet to make up his mind. Yes, after three weeks of solid havering this putative election has less snap than a piece of celery lost at the bottom of the fridge.
I stick by my psychological diagnosis of earlier in the week. It is not so much that Gordon Brown is internally divided on the question. His condition is far worse than that. He is a great quivering protoplasmic jelly of indecision, and if you come with me now into the Brown study in Downing Street, you will see what I mean.
The floor of the Brown study is littered with fingernail chewings and scrumpled poll findings, and there in the corner is the burbling TV.
David Cameron in Blackpool is really hitting his stride, and the Tories are starting to buzz with pleasure and interest as the themes come into focus: burning the rulebook of pointless regulation, looking after the most vulnerable, rebuilding a sense of personal responsibility, helping first-time buyers by getting rid of the ludicrous Home Information Packs and cutting stamp duty, and, as the crowd start to yodel their enthusiasm, Gordon can take it no more. With a great Scottish oath he turns down the sound, and shouts “Balls!” and, as if by magic, Ed Balls appears from behind the arras, clutching a sheaf of papers.
Before Brown can explain the confusion, his number one lieutenant has launched into the statistics – and it’s good news from the focus groups. They think Brown is dull; they think he is bank managerly, but never mind, says Balls: dull is the new cool, and the essential fact is that women in key marginals think he is dependable.
Worcester Woman associates him with Ovaltine, says Balls, and once again he makes his pitch. “You’ve got to go for it,” he begs. “You’ve got to go for it now, when the Tories are down. Let’s do as Neil Kinnock says. Let’s grind those Tory bastards into the dust. Let’s plunge our pitchforks into their recumbent forms,” says Balls, his eyes starting to glisten, “and then do it again and again until…”
But the Prime Minister raises his trembling finger to silence his aide, and with a flick of the zapper he turns up the sound, because now more good sense is coming out of Blackpool.
The Tories are proposing a new kind of national service, to help build cohesion and personal discipline, and there is going to be a campaign against the closure of district hospitals and common sense on immigration; and as Brown gazes at the resurgent opposition the colour drains from his face, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and like the vacillating Scottish tyrant in the play, he is assailed by doubt. “If we should fail…” he falters.
“We fail!” cries Lady MacBalls, “but screw your courage to the sticking-place and…”
“Wait!” cries a haggard figure staggering in from stage left. It’s Alistair Darling, reeling from the Northern Rock debacle and bearing terrible tidings from his own constituency. “We can’t have an election now!” he cries. “The Scots are in revolt. We could lose our ancient power base. I could lose my own seat,” he protests; and Brown goggles at Darling, and says, “Darling, I can’t bear it.”
And for a moment his eyes flit from Balls to Darling, from Darling to Balls, like a spectator at Wimbledon, until Balls impatiently interrupts the rally. “But we’ve got to go now,” he says, “before your honeymoon is over. We’ve got to go to the country before the Brown bounce dribbles away and dies like a ping-pong ball lost behind the sofa. Look at that speech from Mike Bloomberg on Monday, about the economic storm clouds crossing the Atlantic. Who knows – there may be a real property crash next year. Of course it’s risky to go now – but it might be riskier to wait.”
And just as Brown is about to assent to this powerful point, Darling interrupts again, his eyebrows waggling with emotion like the mating ritual of a pair of giant black hairy caterpillars.
“No!” he cries: “That’s exactly why we should hold on. How can the electorate trust us if they just think we are cutting and running?”
“Who cares!” cries Balls. “It’s now or never. Things can only get worse. Come on, Gordon!”
“But Prime Minister!” says Darling, making one last appeal to reason. “The polls are treacherous, and Worcester Woman is notoriously fickle. Do you really want to go down as one of the shortest lived prime ministers on record?”
“Too late, Darling,” snaps Balls, and now he really lays it on the line with his boss. “The press have been whipped into such a fever of electoral excitement that if you wimp out now they’ll say you’re frit. They’ll say you’re just a big girl’s blouse.”
And Brown’s shoulders slump, because he knows there is no arguing with the media. He knows it is too late. He wonders for a horrible half second whether his youthful lieutenant may have some ulterior motive for stampeding him into an early election, but he knows he has spun himself into a trap.
Out of the corner of his eye he can see David Cameron accepting the acclaim of his party, and the vox pops of the swing voters announcing that they have been won over. He turns it off at last, and a silence falls in the study, broken only by the soft, rabbit-like munching of cuticles.