The United Kingdom does not have a presidential system and our Prime Ministers are not directly elected by the popular vote of the whole electorate. Indeed in theory they are “First among equals” and the governance of the nation is the collective responsibility of a cabinet of ministers. But in reality, for many years now, the Prime Minister has been the de facto Head of State on a par with the presidents of republics like the United States and France. And at General Elections the battle between the main parties is generally characterised as being a contest between alternative Prime Ministerial candidates. It is important to remember these realties because it is at least arguable that Gordon Brown’s cabinet is one of the more able and experienced of modern times – and yet his Government is in unstoppable freefall.
The loss of the Glasgow East constituency in yesterday’s by-election is the latest, and certainly the worst, of the electoral disasters that have befallen Brown. There can be no doubt that this election was a referendum on Brown and that the electors saw it as an opportunity to send him an unequivocal message. The Scottish National Party did not campaign particularly strongly on an “Independence for Scotland” platform – but as runners up at the last election they were simply the most likely of the non Labour Party candidates to beat Labour this time. At the Crewe and Nantwich by-election the 2005 runners-up had been the Conservatives so the anti-Labour vote went to them and they stormed to victory on 22nd May this year. I have little doubt that if there was a by-election in a constituency where the Liberal Democrats came second last time around it would be they who would prosper in this current “Anyone but Labour” mood.
The willingness of the electorates in Britain to vote tactically to send the Prime Minister a message is a triumph for our democratic processes – but what is that message? I think that it is now beyond doubt that there is such a degree of dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown that the prospects for Labour are cataclysmic if he stays in office. It is sad when you see a fundamentally decent man, which Brown undoubtedly is, so unfit for the office he is in – especially as he fought so hard to achieve it. Brown’s predecessor was the most consummate political professional that we have seen in Britain in decades, but Tony Blair did not have ten percent of Gordon Brown’s integrity and moral underpinning. Blair was a brilliant opportunist and an inspirational communicator but “principles light”. Brown has principles galore – but he cannot persuade that his own intelligence and decency are sufficient for the electorate to like him, and certainly not to vote for him.
Gordon Brown’s cabinet colleagues and others in the Labour Party in the country now have no alternative but to tell him that the game is up. “It’s a funny old world” as Margaret Thatcher remarked in similar circumstances in 1990 when she was forced out of office as Prime Minister.Â But, as with Thatcher, there is now no way back for Brown. He may still feel that he has the ability to withstand the heat of the kitchen, but it is likely that the fire will consume him within weeks, if not days.Â