The Peter Principle

Gordon Brown is being compared to many of his predecessors in politics: Jim Callaghn and John Major are two of the most popular, but neither is terribly apposite.

The John Major comparison is particularly weak. Two years after becoming Prime Minister, Major won a general election - possibly the most personal victory of any recent election. He remained in office for seven years and was the third longest serving Prime Minister (at a single stretch) of the Twentieth Century. Right now, despite a notoriously high opinion of himself, Gordon Brown would jump at any of that.

Where the Major comparison makes sense is that the Labour Party now appears to be descending into cannibalism. The Conservatives from 1994 to 1997 stopped arguing about how to win the coming election, and focussed instead on arguing about whose fault it was that they were going to lose. Labour - more briefly but more intensively - did the same thing during the first half of 1983. They even announced - during a General Election campaign - that they had decided, after a long discussion, "that Michael Foot is still the Leader of the Labour Party".

Currently Labour is not in that position, but they are teetering on the edge, and it could yet happen.

The Callaghan comparison is the one that Brown fears the most. Callaghan succeeded the most successful Labour Leader to date and held a government together for a few years before seeing it collapse into chaos. He famously chickened out of a possible election in October 1978, which he might have won, believing that things would improve, only to see them get far, far, worse. But Callaghan's fitful rise to the top of the Labour Party was very different from Gordon Brown's sulking machiavellianism. Callaghan served in all the great offices of state and failed to achieve any sort of distinction in any of them. Brown, by contrast, was a competent Chancellor with a firm grasp on his brief. He had a clear understanding of all the issues in front of him, even if his judgement was flawed. Callaghan was also known as 'Sunny Jim'.

I think there are two better comparisons. Both, as it happens, Scots, and one an old friend of Brown's: Menzies Campbell and Iain Duncan Smith.

Both were elevated to the leadership of their parties after strong performances in lower positions. Duncan Smith was a successful Shadow Social Security Secretary and Shadow Defence Secretary. Campbell was a distinguished spokeman on foreign affairs. Duncan Smith will probably return to front rank politics and have a distinguished career in the next Conservative cabinet. Both were elected, in part, because of limited alternatives. The outstanding Conservative candidate in 2001 was Michael Portillo, but some were queasy of his libertarianism (which they saw as fluidity of principle) and others of his arrogance. In the end Duncan Smith faced the deeply flawed Kenneth Clark in a run off: a highly effective politician, completely out of line with his party. Campbell's most interesting rival was exposed in a rent boy scandal and only prominent foe turned out to have been lying about his sexuality.

Brown, too, became Leader in part because the alternatives were limited, though limited in his case by highly effective internal briefings against them by the Brown camp, and his reputation for bearing a grudge. In the end, no-one of substance was willing to stand against him.

In the end, Campbell and Duncan Smith each found that, despite their success in lower positions, leading their party was simply beyond them. Brown is discovering the same thing - or rather he is not, but others are beginning to realise it of him.

The man will never make a decision. He will not put off until tomorrow anything he thinks he can put off until next week. Every decision requires the gathering of yet more facts, and futher consideration from his colossal intellect. Though, interestingly, no decision requires consultation with anyone else. He worries every decision to death - and his fingernails bear the scars. In the end he will struggle on until the last possible moment for an election, always believing that people will soon see how misguided they are in not recognising his brilliance before. And then he will lose. And then he will sulk. I can't imagine anyone wanting to be his successor. Leading a party that has Gordon Brown on its backbenches would be impossible.

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