The Big Decision: As David Cameron Tickles the Tory Faithful in Blackpool, Which Way Will Gordon Brown Turn? Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Identifies the Raw Emotions and Calculations That Will Guide Him through the Election Fever
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
Courage. It is quality that both obsesses and torments Gordon Brown. He has now written two books on the subject: a series of profiles of his political heroes and a companion volume on ordinary people who have shown extraordinary bravery.
But as he prepares to take the most momentous decision of his political life--whether or not to call a snap election this autumn--he will need all the inspiration he can muster. The Tory conference was not the car crash some expected it to be. David Cameron may not have pulled off the best speech of his career, but it was impressive enough to rally the troops. Brown is no longer fighting a Conservative Party in disarray.
Despite Brown's reputation as the most successful political streetfighter of his generation, his political career has been dogged by a single nagging suspicion. Is he a "bottler"?
When John Smith died in 1994, should he have held his nerve and faced down the challenge from Tony Blair? Many in his inner circle still feel he should not have bent to pressure to stand aside. Then, through the bitter days of the Blair-Brown struggles, the chancellor's courage was often called into question, although some would argue that his dogged patience was a form of bravery in itself, eventually rewarded with the top job after a ten-year wait. But there were also the highly corrosive charges that he would absent himself at moments of crisis for the government.
As Prime Minister, Brown has surprised many people, including those in his own party who did not believe he had it in him. His handling of the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, the foot-and-mouth crisis and the summer floods was decisive (as Brown himself was quick to suggest in his speech to Labour's conference, as he paid tribute to the fortitude of the British people).
As his team make their final calculations, the polling analysis being carried out in Labour's election bunker is the most sophisticated yet. Thanks to the technology of the specialist software Mosaic, Labour has long been able to segment the population into dozens of social categories. The information they have built up (akin to the information supermarket chains hold on us), means the party's election literature will be carefully tailored to voters, be they "new-town materialists" or "urban intellectuals", according to the colourful labels of the polling world. Richard Webber, the creator of Mosaic, has been saying for some time that the message produced by the software (when matched with polling information) is that the Labour heartlands are growing ever more disillusioned with conventional politics. These groups, with names such as "Coronation Street", "white van culture", "rust belt resilience" and "older right-to-buy", were as much Brown's target as was Middle England. "British jobs for British people" was meant for both. Although these Mosaic groups are not usually associated with marginal seats, they could make the difference in a close vote and represent many of the millions who abandoned Labour at the last election.
Although I am told the decision on whether to call an election remains on a knife edge, the more personal the attacks by the media or Tory politicians become, the more likely it is that Brown will call an election. He was particularly hurt by the suggestion in the Times that his conference speech was plagiarised from American Democrat politicians. One aide said: "The behaviour of the Tories and some sections of the media shows they are already electioneering. Why should Gordon put up with another six months of this when he can't fight back?"
At times since the Labour conference, the PM has been in a state of barely controlled fury. I am told this grew to a crescendo during the conference speech by the shadow defence spokesman, Liam Fox. If Britain does go to the polls, the following passage may turn out to be the tipping point: "You, Prime Minister--in your self-indulgent, plagiarised, 67-minute speech, how much did you dedicate to Iraq, Afghanistan and our armed forces? …