I speak relatively, of course. Tony Blair was the most dishonest man ever to have been Prime Minister. Gordon Brown wants to outdo Blair in everything and he is certainly catching up fast on this front. Blair begins to look like a model of decency and propriety next to Brown.
The three big events of recent weeks – the election that wasn’t, the European charter and the pre-Budget statement – have all undone the appearance of statesmanship which Brown managed to acquire in his first few weeks. It was in truth a pretty baseless kind of statesmanship anyway – Brown gave up his holiday to go and look at some damp houses, turned up to hear the experts’ recommendations on sick cows, and found himself hailed as a good man in a crisis.
All that is thrown away now. In each of the three cases, the damage has not so much derived from Brown’s lack of judgement (the election) or because many people disagree with him (Europe and CGT) but because of the patent dishonesty, the open contempt for democracy and the sheer unpleasantness of the man.
Gordon Brown let the election fever run, and did nothing to control the minions who talked it up (and spent £1 million of party funds in preparation). He could have stopped it with a flick of his fingers, but chose not to. He chose not to because, like everyone else, he saw the possibility of a clear run to an election win. Politicians are entitled to gamble like this so long as the business of government goes on, and I for one don’t blame them for looking for legitimate opportunities to extend their term of office.
He bottled it, his critics say, including many on his own side. He took a considered view, after taking some expensive advice, that his best interests lay in passing on the election. It matters not which of these positions you take – he exercised his right not to call an election.
It is what happened next which shows the character flaws in the man. He denied that he had ever intended to call an election and said, in answer to a question, that he would not have gone to the country even if advised that he could get a 100 seat majority. This is obviously untrue – a party already £20 million in debt does not spend a million preparing for an snap election which its leader has no intention of calling. What contempt for us is there in this willingness to give a direct lie?
He compounded this by his angry bear performance in the Commons a day or two later. Politics apart, I don’t want decisions made for me and my country by a man so obviously unable to control himself. That bad-tempered, roaring, incoherent creature we saw on television is the man who can decide to send us into the next war.
There are two levels of dishonesty involved in the EU reform treaty. One is that New Labour promised us a referendum in their manifesto. Labour is very keen on standing on its manifesto pledges when it suits it. What are they worth, however, if the party thinks it can pick and choose which ones it honours?
The second level is related to the first – Brown argues that the treaty as amended is something different from the one which was the subject of the manifesto pledge. Even those who drafted the revisions are willing to acknowledge that the changes are a mixture of window-dressing and deliberate obscurity. Brown, however, is happy not just to be dishonest about the long-term impact of the treaty which he signs in our name but to use the revisions as a reason for abandoning the manifesto pledge. The effect of the treaty is bad enough. Gordon Brown’s dishonesty about it is worse, even to a country with a decade’s experience of New Labour dishonesty.
The sudden announcement of the end of CGT taper relief also has implications beyond the obvious defects in the plan. It is not just that it screws up the plans of people who have built up businesses with the legitimate expectation of a certain rate of tax; it is not just that the proposals fly in the face of everything the government has said about encouraging enterprise; it is not just the lack of consultation and the dishonesty (again) about the timing and motive for the change. It is the fact that no-one will ever rely again on a Gordon Brown pronouncement on tax matters. He spent a decade encouraging people to build up businesses and then hacked away the tax basis which made it worth the struggle and the investment.
It is almost incidental, given this government’s record on unintended consequences, that the chief beneficiaries will be the buy-to-let owners who have done so much to inflate house prices at the first-time buyer end of the market.
So – Gordon Brown is a bad-tempered, dishonest man with poor judgement and no self-control under pressure, gutless and indecisive when decisions must be made, and willing to jettison integrity when politics requires. Blair was all of those things. Like Brown and his “moral compass”, Blair expressly promised us integrity and broke that promise within weeks of taking power.
So why does Brown appear the more dishonest of the two? It is partly a matter of style – Blair had in spades and it carried him through many moments when his lack of integrity was exposed, where Brown carries that miasma of unpleasantness around with him. I think it is actually because of Brown’s claims to have a Christian foundation for his morality. At a time when other religions look on us with contempt, it does us no good to be led by a man whose claims to morality, honesty and devotion are so obviously contradicted by his conduct and bearing.