Reading Damian McBride’s latest blog post on the “election that never was”, I am most affected by the tenderness and sympathy with which McBride treats his boss.
Here is a man, after all, who is variously described as fuming, impossible to calm, in danger of a public meltdown, and frankly sounds uncannily like the irrational fellow Jonathan Powell describes in his book.
Yet there are also hints at why Brown could inspire such loyalty freely. His drive, his analysis of politics and economics, his total commitment to his team.
In the end, that loyalty was fatal to the Labour party. By the end, the people who worked for Gordon were the only ones who could bring him down, and their affection and admiration for him meant they could not do so.
Certainly those on the outside were incapable of it.
The truly unhappy Labour ministers and MPs were caught between their fear of accusations of disloyalty from the inner circle and their expectation of the pain any successful revolt would cause within the party. Who could have run a Labour party with Whelan, Balls, McBride, Mattinson et all untethered, powerless but with a powerbase, waiting patiently for revenge -again-?
So they havered, and hemmed and hawed and weakened themselves as they did so.
Those of us on the outside could do little, either.
Most, like me, weighed the benefits of replacing Gordon with the cost of civil war, and found the cost of war to great. In any case, we had no chief.
No, the only people who could have destroyed Gordon were those who admired him most.
I am reminded of an episode in Richard Ben Cramer’s defining text of American presidential elections, “What it takes”.
Paul Simon, an ex-Senator, is making a surprising run for the Presidency. He’s probably unelectable and vulnerable on a host of issues, but he’s worthy, and nice and seemingly harmless, and the other candidates are wary of being the one to destroy him.
In the end, Dick Gephardt rips Simon to shreds in one of the debates, immolating himself in the process*. Joe Trippi says that for watching voters, what Gephardt did was the equivalent to “taking out a magnum and blowing Bambi’s head off”.
It might sound an odd comparison to make, but reading Damian’s account of his boss after the election that never was, I’m struck by how protective he is. Gordon cannot be trusted to do a TV interview, but must be protected.
This trend continued. By the end, to his inner circle, the iron chancellor was Bambi. He was weak, vulnerable, incapable of anything much, protected only by their loyalty and belief and refusal to accept that although it was a man they admired, loved even…
…someone needed to blow Bambi’s head off.
For all the machismo of the Brown operation, this is the one step they were incapable of.
Political calculation might have weighed against this. After all, if Gordon went, his team would likely go with him. By delaying until ultimate defeat (or unlikely victory) it would be easier to regroup behind a new champion.
More nobly, I’m sure there was a sense that Gordon Brown was, whatever his flaws, uniquely suited to meeting the global crisis of 2008.
The closer we came to the election though, the less his governance skills mattered, the more his political weakness mattered.
Ultimately, this counted. Twenty saved Labour seats and we might have had a Labour led government. We might have avoided a double dip recession.
The Brown team might not control the Labour party as they do now, but they might have largely been running the country.
But they’re not.
Because they couldn’t bring themselves to kill Bambi.
*Text not online, but this account is accurate.
“Perhaps his most famous theory was immortalized by the journalist Richard Ben Cramer in What It Takes, his epic about the 1988 campaign. It starred Dick Gephardt in the role of Dick Gephardt and former senator Paul Simon in the role of Bambi, and it concluded with Trippi telling Cramer: “So, in the NBC debate, Gephardt takes out a .357 Magnum and blows Bambi’s head off.”