Magazine article The Spectator

Obama Could Be a Great Ally to a Prime Minister -- but Not This One

Magazine article The Spectator

Obama Could Be a Great Ally to a Prime Minister -- but Not This One

Article excerpt

The 'legacy' might be an extremely touchy subject in Downing Street these days, but the speech reflected how Gordon Brown wanted history to remember him: a consequential prime minister who helped steer the world through one of its great crises.

When the senators and congressmen rose to applaud him, all the ambitions that Brown has nursed throughout his political career must have seemed within reach. Here he was, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, lecturing a specially convened joint session of the US Congress about the need for a 'global new deal'. But, in truth, the moment was more like the last wish granted a condemned man than the fulfilment of a lifetime's ambition.

Brown will not go down in the history books alongside the other prime ministers who have had the honour of addressing a joint session of the US Congress -- Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair -- but as one who oversaw the worst recession in postwar British history and never even won an election. The story of the next 14 months will be Brown's last desperate attempt to revive his electoral fortunes and his reputation.

In the President, Brown sees a lifeline: someone with enough political capital to bail him out, as his own government has the bankers. Already Obama has offered Brown access to a valuable line of credit. The constant stream of announcements on the economy had devalued the currency of the prime ministerial statement, but the President's unexpected offer to Brown to address a joint session of Congress gave him a platform which the British press and public could not ignore.

Brown's survival strategy is, on paper, simple. Align himself with Obama, hold a successful G20 Summit at the beginning of April, be seen as the man steering the world through the economic storm and have the British economy growing again a decent interval before polling day. So crucial to the Prime Minister's comeback hopes is the G20 that the Budget has even been pushed back to accommodate it. It will now take place on 22 April, the latest date for a Budget since Labour came to power in 1997.

There is a slew of reasons why Labour is placing so much faith in the G20. An international summit on the economy accords with Brown's narrative that this crisis is global; it is a more diplomatic version of the 'It started in America' line. It will almost certainly support some kind of co-ordinated international action to stimulate the global economy. This will allow Brown to argue, wrongly, that the 'do-nothing' Tories are alone in the world in opposing a stimulus -- Brown will have been delighted to have seen several newspapers pick up this line on Wednesday. It will also give him cover for yet more deficit-funded spending in the Budget and be his excuse for why his stimulus plan has not yet worked.

In the 2008 Pre-Budget Report, Brown and Darling said that the stimulus would have the British economy growing again by the third quarter of this year.

Another reason for placing such a heavy emphasis on the summit is the theory that the sight of Brown leading the world in its response to this economic crisis might restore some of the public's faith in his economic competence, a prerequisite of a Brown recovery.

The Financial Times's headline on Wednesday 'Obama backs UK on crisis co-ordination' will have delighted Downing Street.

Then there is, of course, the desire to associate with the most powerful brand in global politics: a belief among those depressed by the party's unpopularity that Obama can -- by his mere presence -- make this grubby, tired government shiny and new again. Labour is relying on the shots of Brown and Obama having the opposite effect on the electorate of those of Blair and Bush together. But perhaps the main reason Labour has invested so much in this summit is that it needs something to cling to, something to make it dream that Brown can come back.

This is a false hope. …

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