Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Two Brown(e)s


Desmond Browne defended himself over the Iran hostages crisis on Monday, while Gordon Brown defended himself over the pensions decision he took ten years ago yesterday. Both Commons events had some interest, and showed that the old chamber still represents the key arena for political combat in Britain, both performances told us something of the men who gave them, and both ended with predictable results.

The Defence Secretary's performance was a stolid, uninspiring and rather mealy mouthed one. Nick Robinson, in his blog entry about it, suggested it showed that a minister could survive a mistake by apologising for it and moving on. The reality was that Browne made it clear he hated admitting any responsibility, only owned up to his mistake after nearly a week in which he used all sorts of verbal contortions to try and suggest it wasn't his fault really, and finally had a grudging 'sorry' forced from his lips only after using the dreadful formula that he had expressed "a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology" (see Simon Hoggart's excellent sketch here). Given the clarity of the Defence Department's own rule book about the Defence Secretary's responsibility for the decision regarding the sale of the hostages' stories, this is one case where ministerial responsibility should certainly have resulted in resignation. But nothing doing. That little convention is as dead as it gets.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is busy trying to shore up shares in Brown-for-PM, and his latest effort has been to defend himself in a Commons debate called by the Tories to attack his handling of the pensions issue. Most professionals involved in the pensions industry have been scathing of Brown's 1997 decision to scrap tax relief on pensions for years, and are confident that the calamitous results of his decision are yet to be seen. It is perhaps a sign of how feeble the Tories have been over the last decade that they have so signally failed to launch any useful attack on him until now, and are only on the attack now because of the media's digging around on this issue. Brown is becoming fair game for several media outlets (excepting the 'Sun' of course, which remains committed to New Labour) in view of his likely unchallenged assumption of the premiership. Defending himself in the Commons yesterday, he gave a hectoring performance, using his trademark over-familiarity with statistics to bamboozle the Opposition. He won the vote of course - that's what a Labour majority is for after all. And he rather dominated his Tory opposite number, George Osborne, who still doesn't really convince as a prospective alternative chancellor. If we were looking for signs of a new, more self-doubting Brown, then the most recent debate certainly didn't provide it.

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