Prudence Has Had Her Day, Prime Minister

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

Prudence Has Had Her Day, Prime Minister


Byline: William Rees-Mogg

Tony Blair would be less than human if he did not feel moments of acutepleasure at the spectacle of Gordon Brown, his successor, stewing in his ownjuice. After all, Gordon Brown was a dreadful colleague, the most impossibleChancellor of the Exchequer, from a Prime Minister's point of view, since LordSalisbury rejoiced at the resignation of Lord Randolph Churchill in December1886.

Now Blair is out of the firing line and Brown is suffering a catastrophe a day.One can imagine how the Prime Minister must writhe every morning over thenewspapers.

We hear he telephones or emails his Ministers to complain, sometimes at aridiculously early hour of the morning.

Blair must feel these political setbacks could not be happening to a moredeserving person. Blair's point of view, and perhaps Alastair Campbell's, maybe that Brown asked for it and now he is getting it.

The succession to major Prime Ministers has never been easy and might have beena warning. A list of the truly historic Prime Ministers would include Walpole,Chatham, Pitt, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Lloyd George, Churchill andThatcher.

These names still ring out in our national history. They were succeeded, in thesame order, by Pulteney, Bute, Addington, Stafford Northcote (as joint Leaderof the Opposition), Rosebery, Balfour, Bonar Law, Eden and Major. Somehow thesenames do not have a similar resonance.

A rhyme that was written when Addington succeeded Pitt tells it all: 'Pitt isto Addington as London is to Paddington.' Some of the successors were able men,who did good service to the nation. We owe to Stafford Northcote, for instance,the Victorian civil service and the Washington Treaty that made friends withthe United States; he has his statue in the central lobby at Westminster.

But Disraeli is remembered where he is forgotten; it is one thing to be a soundChancellor and another to be a great Prime Minister.

We can already see Brown's first instinct to call an autumn General Electionwas right, and that the disasters that now fall on him 'thick as autumnalleaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa',are the consequence of his failureto do so. Most Conservatives thought at the time that he could win an Octoberelection. He might not have done so, but only victory would have taken him outof the shadow of Blair.

Blair may not have been a great Prime Minister - it is hard to identify any ofhis achievements as truly great - but he won three elections, and that countsfor a lot in a parliamentary democracy.

Since Brown was too cautious to risk an autumn election, nothing has gone rightfor him; it is as though the Blair years exhausted all the oxygen from DowningStreet.

It was a fellow Scot, James Graham, the 17th Century Marquis of Montrose, whowrote these tragic but true lines: 'He either fears his fate too much, Or hisdeserts are small, That puts it not unto the touch, To win or lose it all.'There is an intuitive courage needed for high success in public life Blair hadit, whatever one thinks of his judgment. Brown is a cautious man, averse torisk. Prudence is a financial virtue, but a political defect.

I do not see how the Prime Minister will now turn this situation around. Thelatest opinion poll is bad for Labour. Brown says he does not attend to polls,but no one believes him when he says that. …

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