U-Turn : Dithered to the Death

At PMQs Dave called Gordon “a loser not a leader”. The hastily cobbled together deal placated Frank Field this morning and he withdrew his amendment. Apparently the sticking plaster for the lower paid will be backdated and will include “changes to the winter fuel payment system, tax credits and the minimum wage in order to compensate those losing out from the ending of the 10p rate.”

Nice and simple. Not.

Cast your mind back to last week’s U.S. trip. On the flight to Washington Gordon personally briefed the Lobby on the usual off-the-record basis that “No one will lose out.”

He dismissed Lobby hacks claims that dozens of Labour MPs were set to rebel over the issue, saying: “It is just one or two MPs asking questions.” The Mail on Sunday was not on the trip, so was not bound by Lobby terms, it accurately reported Gordon claiming
“You’re wrong. No one will lose out. Come on . . . you guys have exaggerated it all.”

When BBC political editor Nick Robinson insisted there was a sizeable Labour revolt, Mr Brown fired back*: “No it isn’t. There are just one or two MPs asking questions.”

When a journalist from a Labour-supporting paper insisted that the rebellion was far bigger, Mr Brown scowled: “Really? Really? That’s what you say.”

He was equally abrupt with ITN political editor Tom Bradby, who had asked him at the White House about the resignation threat by ministerial aide Angela Smith.

Mr Brown was forced to break off from his White House talks to beg Ms Smith not to resign. “You said a Minister was going to resign, but she didn’t,” Mr Brown told Mr Bradby.

Asked “What did Angela Smith say to you?” Mr Brown replied: “She just phoned me to say she wasn’t resigning.”

BBC Newsnight political editor Michael Crick asked sarcastically: “She phoned you up at the White House to tell you she wasn’t resigning? Do all your Ministers do that?”

Another journalist put Mr Brown on the spot: “Do you acknowledge that there will be some losers from this tax change?”

The Prime Minister replied: “No. It’s not as simple as that.”

Such was the extraordinary nature of the exchanges with the assembled Lobby that the papers, even though bound by Lobby terms, were full of phrases hinting along the lines of “PM Privately Furious” the next day. Downing Street spin officials were horrified by the disastrous briefing. The PM appeared to be either in complete denial or out of touch with reality. He was also close to losing self-control and on the edge of throwing yet another tantrum. Gordon was convinced by officials he should give another personal briefing during the trip in an attempt to repair the damage done.

Clearly if you start talking transparent bollocks to the Lobby when you are off-the-record, you will inevitably get a bad press. The whole point of the Lobby and off-the-record briefings is that they are supposed to allow candid honesty in return for non-attribution. Gordon’s psychological flaws and unwillingness to accept criticism make it impossible for him to accept that when he has made a mistake, and this was a huge mistake, he has to openly make amends. His usual bullying didn’t work in this case – he has now made a humiliating U-turn – not an act of leadership.

*Nick Robinson has obliquely confirmed the Mail on Sunday’s version of events. He blogs that “Gordon Brown had shouted down those who told him there were many many losers from his last Budget as Chancellor and those who told him he faced a real political crisis as a result.” Guido suspects that Nick himself was, as reported, one of “those” shouted down.

UPDATE : U-turn letter (pdf) here.




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