Gordon Brown's alive - and doing the right thing

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 7 March 2013 in Diary
Compared to previous PMs, Gordon Brown has kept his head down. Just what is wrong with that, asks Sadie Smith

The end of day adjournment debate is undertaken after all the other usual business of the House – Departmental questions, Private Member’s Bills, government legislation, and Dennis Skinner roaring about “posh boys” – is over. They are an opportunity for backbench MPs to pin a Minister down about a local issue and, whilst nothing substantive often emerges, it is a useful way in which ordinary Members can hold the Government to account.

It’s also, incidentally, local press release gold: “MP demands action from Government on cormorants in Pagham” or “Furious MP says ‘Enough is enough’ to Minister.” That sort of thing.

Attendance in the Chamber is usually reasonably low. At going on for 9pm after the House has already sat for about ten hours, most are either on their way home, at official functions, or in the Strangers’ Bar. The House is thusly deserted, bar and a smattering of the sponsor’s mates or MPs who represent nearby constituencies and a resentful Government Minister who has been drafted in to respond to the backbencher.

Last night the Minister was Andrew Robathan who, in his closing remarks, commented to the Member who called the debate on radiation in Dalgety Bay, Fife, “May I say how pleased I am to see the right hon. Gentleman in the House?”

For the hon gent was none other than Gordon Brown MP, in one of his rare appearances in the  Commons chamber.

I can’t claim to be a natural cheerleader for the Gord although, naturally at the time as a good Labour Party member I supported him with all the grim determination that he seemed to manifest for hanging on in there as prime minister. It wasn’t just a policy thing, although the obsessive micromanagement, and the posthumous windy sighs when another tactical manoeuvre went arse up – “but it all looked so good when we were press releasing it last Saturday!” – seemed to cast a depression all the way through the party, even right down to the lowly minions like me.

It was also just a general feeling, and entirely – well, mostly - unrelated to my unrequited love for the Tonemeister that we’d suddenly all been transported into a scene out of the Sopranos and there were people who were family and had a huge amount of power, and there were people who weren’t. It wasn’t so much resentment that stalked the corridors of power, as a palpable sense of unease.

Still, the difference between Blairism and Brownism was largely turf rather than policy based, and he came into his own during the banking crisis. But after the election was lost and Cameron and Clegg were cooing at each other in the rose garden, what was left for Brown – no longer a Prime Minister, but a former PM and backbench MP?

I reckon I’m on my own here, but I reckon the Gord has played it absolutely right the last three years. He’s been criticised for not appearing much in the Chamber and the implication has been that he’s cashing his paycheck without putting in the work. Well, no.

For a start, a lot of an MP’s work is constituency based and has become increasingly more so over recent years. With the popularity of websites such as 38 Degrees and the rising accessibility of MPs, their casework pile has grown exponentially. Just because an MP isn’t in the Chamber, doesn’t mean he or she is not in the constituency holding surgeries or public meetings or writing letters on behalf of local residents. A lot of backbench MPs only speak out on their constituency when they are in the Chamber, as opposed to chipping in on Commons statements on national or international matters.

A Member can’t get it right anyway: if you’re in the constituency, you should be giving your voters a voice in Westminster. If you’re in Westminster, you’re in the “bubble” instead of hunkering down with the real people on the ground.

So the fact that Brown’s not been in the House doesn’t mean he’s slacking as an MP and perhaps also, just perhaps, he feels that appearing at centrepiece debates such as the Budget or the weekly bear-pit that is PMQs would provide an unwelcome and damaging distraction. How much would Cameron enjoy the opportunity to goad the Eds with the spectre of Brown’s ghost loitering palely around the arras as they try to present a new beginning for Labour? Not particularly helpful I’d have thought, as has been clear every time, until reasonably recently, David Miliband attempted to get an answer out of the Prime Minister that wasn’t, ‘Your brother! LOL!”

Furthermore, how many former PMs have stuck around to fully participate in the work of your standard, newly elected backbencher upon leaving office? Tony Blair went off to cure the Middle East and is now sighted only occasionally, looking smooth, and with a pair of Ray Bans permanently stapled to his forehead. John Major headed off to play cricket, a sport I’ve never understood myself, but if I’d have had his political innings, I’d have taken a bed of hot nails in hell over carrying on a second longer than I had to. Thatch is now in the Lords.

The fact is, that no heir to the throne relishes the thought of its previous incumbent ricocheting around the backbenches, causing problems, and undermining their authority. That Brown appears to have understood this and that he didn’t haul his Parliamentary toys out of the pram and by-election it immediately – in spite of any personal resentment he may feel – does him credit.

He still, I guess, palely loiters in the imagination of the Labour Party and the Kremlinologists who enjoy the occasional sightings and analysing what it all means.

Yesterday he made a speech at 8.47pm at night, when most sensible people were already a pint and a packet of mini Cheddars down, about a local issue that is causing a good deal of distress to his constituents risking, in doing so, the muttered barbed and sneers reserved for the mighty who’ve fallen.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Tags: Gordon Brown's lies over Libya, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Sadie Smith, Tony Blair

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