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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 27, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    Brother, where art thou?

    Harry McGee

    The first thing I did when I got home after the holidays was turn on the radio.

    The second thing I did was to change channels.  It’s a simple law of physics. Half an hour of Liveline will ruin every minute of 10 days away from home.

    And that is how I stumbled across Gordon Brown.

    BBC Five Live was carrying his leaders address to the Labour Party, delivered in Manchester.

    When oppositions and the media sense any vulnerability in a leader, it’s not long before the pack is in full hue and cry. Even the slightest gaffe or imperfection or indecision or even straighforward decision suddenly becomes another blunder, another wounding blow of the 1,000 cuts, another controversy, another sign of increasing pressure, mutiny, rebellion, bad faith etc.

    And, by Dad (as they say in Connemara), has Gordon Brown being under the cosh over the past year since he faltered over holding a snap election. Like Brian Cowen, he hasn’t been blessed by events. There has been the global downturn, a commensurate bursting of the property balloon, rising unemployment and the whole nine yards. No Lisbon. But a miserable year, all round. With the smooth as silk David Miliband easing himself into position.

    And so when it came to pass that Brown’s leader’s speech was parlayed up to be a make-or-break speech for him, a last desperate throw of the dice in the last-chance saloon.

    I must say I was impressed by Brown’s speech. He has brooded too long, and pondered too long. But he did come out with all guns blazing. And delivered a cleverly crafted speech that explained who he was, his lifelong dedication to the common good, his vision of a fair society and a fair deal (those ever reliable political commodities) as well as his experience – the killer line for me that faced with this crisis of unprecedent proportions, this was no time for a novice to be tested out. He didn’t bellow or bluster but went a long long way to reestablish his authority.

    Brown tackled some of the personal criticisms that have been made against him head-on. That he is too serious. That he is too dour.

    We’ve been waiting for the same trick o’ the loop from Brian Cowen. There was too much hulabaloo in the media about him not coming back from holidays to deal with a deteriorating situation (though he did manage to give himself a very long break). For my own part, I though that him breaking his holidays would be a futile gesture.

    However, his media appearances since he came back strongly suggest that he might have been better off staying on holidays.  He has been so low-key and uninterested that he has made Gordon Brown look like a song-and-dance man.  Most time he does a stand-up with the media, he folds his arms and gives long convoluted answers, giving an air of indifference and I-am-only-doing-this-because-I-have-t0.  His Late Late appearance was in default mode… cautious to the point of suspicion. He’s been a politician a long time and perhaps it’s been drummed into to him to give nothing away, to be suspicious of the media.

    But the optics of all this are bad. Sure, there’s an early budget. Perhaps he has taken a decision that he will keep all his powder dry until then.  But where’s the passion gone? Does he reserve it all for belting out pub ballads off the back of a truck in Tullamore? Where’s the caped crusader who zoomed in to rescue Gotham City when Bertie found himself surrounded by all those Joker in last year’s General Election?

    Cowen was always regarded a cometh the hour cometh the man kind of guy. But those occasions are very rare. For the vast bulk of the time the better working definition of Cowen is a cautious, conservative and stealthy. Maybe it washes better with Joe Public than it does with us.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I think Brown’s speech was that bit less impressive on the telly. I think Brown’s intent is towards the right ends but he settled for change via sleight of hand rather than the more difficult but longer lasting change that comes from changing the mindset of the people.

      Cameron’s speech last year to conference was quite amazing. I watched it live and thought to myself of how the basic ability to get your point across in person appears to have died out.
      Cameron’s speech stopped a Labour election campaign in its tracks and turned the tables on Brown.

      One thing that does annoy me about political coverage is that we have parliamentary and cabinet systems of governance in both Ireland and the UK yet the media continues to talk as if the leaders of parties were the ones who had to do everything. Party leaders are much more like a player/manager of a team than the supreme overlord. In large part Brown’s problem is that there are few other heavy hitters in his cabinet (Blair didn’t much like competition for the limelight either). Cameron too doesn’t have that many that are household names as yet.


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