When Otto von Bismarck first coined the phrase ‘politics is the art of the possible’ he probably had a little project called the unification of Germany in mind.
In Gordon Brown’s case, just keeping him afloat through the next general election must seem an increasingly formidable task.
Not so to the coterie of ‘best and brightest’ former admen with whom Brown has chosen to surround himself. Step forward Stephen Carter, once JWT’s youngest UK chief executive, who is now Brown’s chief of staff overseeing policy development, communications and political strategy; and his new protegé David Muir, also hailing from a WPP company (The Channel, a media and research specialist).
Let’s be clear from the start. These appointments are not about Brown surrounding himself with yet more Scottish yes men, the so-called Scottish mafia. True, Muir’s name is a giveaway, as is the soft brogue; and Carter is a Scotsman in all but accent. Carter is also well connected to another Scottish former adwoman, MT Rainey, who in turn counts Brown and prime-ministerial hopeful Ed Balls as her close associates. But any idea that these new recruits are in some way an extra layer of Scottish comfort blanket should be dismissed.
And for a very simple reason. If Team Carter is to be successful in getting Brown re-elected, it must first unequivocally establish itself as the force to be reckoned with in Brown’s inner counsels. That may mean treading on a few Brownite toes to get what they want. Tom Scholar, Carter’s predecessor as chief of staff, has been sent back to the Treasury. Douglas Alexander looks hopelessly discredited, having been blamed, fairly or otherwise, for the autumn election shambles. But that still leaves the toughest of the old guard, and Brown’s bruiser, Ian Austin MP (not, for once a Scot), who is unlikely to take kindly to the idea that his talents be deployed elsewhere.
Let’s assume, though, that Team Carter’s political back is covered and its power-base secure. How does it intend to advance Gordon Brown’s political front?
Brown brand values
Not, for sure, by playing to obvious weaknesses. The personality of our prime minister is a lost cause. All right, he’s a “serious” counterweight to the bling of the Blair years. He’s also, according to the public image, dour, intolerant, authoritarian, a poor communicator, a confirmed ditherer and – worst of all – unlucky. So the best strategy is to make him as invisible as possible; imply that he’s far too busy running the country to concern himself with anything other than a bare minimum of media contact.
On the surface the strategy, as opposed to personality, of the prime minister looks slightly more promising material to work with. The brief, of course, must be to win the next election – an event which now seems in full retreat to the early part of 2010. But what are the brand values that Team Carter have to play with?
It’s the economy, stupid
Until last November, Labour’s strongest card – and Brown’s personal ace – would have been economic competence. Northern Rock and the fumbling over capital gains tax and “non-doms” helped put paid to that.†
Much more seriously, though, we now seem to be entering an economic blizzard over which no national government has much control. And least of all a ten-year-old Labour government which, considering where we are in the economic cycle, has overspent and overtaxed. In other words, the present administration can do little to stimulate a depressed economy by way of tax cuts or further public sector spending.
Instead, it must hang on at all costs in the hope that, come election day, the British public will regard a Tory alternative as even more incompetent than the present incumbent, and a hung parliament as a disaster.
Admittedly it’s not much of a brief, but Carter – steely, executive, no-nonsense, pragmatic – is the man to make the most of it. It’s all about minimising mistakes and being the last man standing.
Less clear is how Muir will shape up in this cynical atmosphere. Carter is political, it is said, only in the sense that he is ambitious and likes and understands power. If he were older, it would be equally easy to visualise him as a fixer in one of Margaret Thatcher’s administrations. Muir, on the other hand, seems to have genuine political convictions. These will very likely be eroded by the bruising experience of working for 10 Downing Street over the next couple of years.
As Bismarck went on to observe, politics is also the art of the next best. It’s not for idealists.