With the right spin doctor, Gordon Brown could seem an easy politician to admire. This was the smart, serious-minded Scot who took prudence as his watchword in his successful management of the British economy; the man who oversaw the country’s longest period of economic growth and averted global catastrophe through his handling of the financial crisis. He was the clergyman’s son who thrived on hard work and liked to talk of the “moral compass” offered by his parents’ example.
But he was always hard leader to like. Insider accounts speak of a prime minister who was thin-skinned, tantrumprone, and woefully short on the charisma that endeared the public to Tony Blair, his predecessor as prime minister. One leading civil servant spoke of Brown’s “Stalinist” management style. His smile for the cameras looked painfully forced; his speeches were clunky and fact heavy. Small wonder that his three years in Downing Street were marked by the lowest ratings of any postwar resident. And it’s those tricky personal traits that may have finally cost Gordon Brown his job as party leader, which he resigned today.
As Britain struggled to form a new government—after last week’s election left no party with an outright majority—Brown today announced he would stand down: “I have no desire to stay in my position longer than is needed to ensure the path to economic growth is assured, and the process to political reform we have agreed moves forward quickly.”
A little decoding: despite its drubbing at the polls, Labour might still be able to form the next government if it can reach some form of pact with the Liberal Democrats, who took third place in the election. Already, the Liberal Democrats have admitted to opening talks with Labour. There’s just one obstacle: Gordon Brown. The country might be ready to accept government by a coalition of the losers—but not with the widely discredited Brown in charge. Besides, who’d want to work under Brown, a famously bad team player?
For the 59-year-old Brown, it’s a sad comment on a career that promised so brightly before he reached Downing Street. Apart from a brief spells as a television journalist and an academic, he has known little of life outside politics, entering Parliament at age 32. A contender for the party leadership back in the mid-’90s, he then agreed that his friend and colleague, Tony Blair, should have first chance at the job on the understanding that Brown, in the role of chancellor of the Exchequer, should be seen as his successor. When the Labour Party took power back in 1999, Brown’s influence on policy as chancellor was immense, achieving steep increases on health and education spending without substantial tax rises.
But relations with Blair had soured long before Brown took over in 2007, not least because of his former friend’s reluctance to relinquish office. Once in Downing Street, the questions over Brown’s suitability for the top job grew ever louder. Opponents alleged that whatever his much-vaunted principles, he was quite ready to use aides to smear political enemies. His economic acumen was increasingly queried as commentators came to blame his light-handed approach to financial regulation for the financial crisis. And constant media attention revealed an ill-tempered grouch capable of spectacular misjudgement. In the final days of the campaign he blasted his remaining chances by describing a loyal Labour voter as “a bigoted woman,” unaware that his remark had been recorded. If Gordon Brown made enemies, his own temperament may have been the worst.