Dancing with Gordon: The Prime Minister Has Cleverly Rearranged the Political Choreography, but He Is Too Desperate for Quick Hits. He Must Watch His Step, Writes Steve Richards

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One of the few iron laws in modern politics is that a prime minister must give some meaning to the shapeless torrent of events. The narrative can be tendentious or simplistic, as long as it strikes a chord. Margaret Thatcher was a supreme storyteller. So was Tony Blair. Briefly, John Major pulled it off as well. This is not an optional extra for a political leader, but a necessity, a precondition to achieving further success.

After a successful autumn, Gordon Brown has lost some momentum. Recent polls suggest that the Conservatives have established a significant lead and that voters' confidence in Brown's handling of the economy has diminished. Perhaps this is entirely down to the more tangible bad economic news of recent weeks, but I doubt it. After all, there was no great sense of euphoria towards the end of last year when there were signs of a Brown bounce.

In the autumn, Brown displayed impressive leadership on two separate fronts. First, he acted in ways that appeared to make a significant difference, most spectacularly with his rescue package for the banks. Second, he devised a language to accompany the hyperactivity, phrases that were repeated often, like a jukebox primed to play the same tunes again and again. In several speeches and soundbites Brown declared that he "would do what it takes"--in contrast to the Conservatives, who were the "do nothing party", a phrase that hit home according to the ubiquitous focus groups (both main parties are using them even more intensely than ever).

But the present crisis is so great and so frightening that a few slogans will not sweep a long-serving government back into power. Since the pre-Budget report at the end of last year, the opposite has applied at times to the two positive factors that helped to give Brown a bounce. First, some of the headline-grabbing announcements have proved to be less substantial on closer examination. Second, the narrative has been less vividly clear.

Is Brown making a managerial, pragmatic response to unique circumstances, or acting with a strong sense of ideological direction? His New Year message suggested that he was opting for the latter course, as he declared with a confident flourish: "When the history books come to be written--2008 will largely be remembered for the scale of the great economic and financial crisis. A year in which an old era of unbridled free-market dogma was finally ushered out.

"And I want 2009 to be the year when the dawn of a new progressive era breaks across the world: purposeful and energetic governments giving real help to families and businesses when they need it the most ..."

Brown would not have dared to write such a passage at any point in the past. He has never been a supporter of unbridled free markets and has always had a faith in the benevolent power of government. Yet he has never articulated his views so distinctly, fearing an unstoppable onslaught from those powerful forces that worshipped at the altar of the Reagan/Thatcher orthodoxies. There were quite a few worshippers within his party, too.

However, a few days after the publication of the powerfully argued message, Brown gave his annual New Year interview to Andrew Marr, almost as important a part of the political year as the Queen's Speech or the party conference address: a chance to set the agenda, to change the course a little after everyone has had a break from politics. Here Brown was more the apolitical father of the nation: "By the way, this is not a debate between Keynesians and monetarists. All economists agree that if the economy cannot move because private-sector activity is not working and the markets are not working to the best effect, then the government has got to step in ..."

By implication, Brown was trying to isolate the British Conservative Party from the rest of the world and in particular every economist on the planet. Yet, in doing so, he made his message sound much less rooted. …