The party insiders urged him to call it. David Cameron challenged him to it. Gordon Brown tried to play politics with it for a short term gain. Eventually the hesitancy destroyed a carefully crafted reputation, and Labour have looked like the opposition ever since. So why didn’t Brown call that General Election of 2007?
As Gordon Brown stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, he promised to “reach out beyond narrow party interest; I will build a government that uses all the talents; I will invite men and women of goodwill to contribute their energies in a new spirit of public service to make our nation what it can be.”
It was the culmination of a lifetime’s ambition, to stand in front of the nation as a Labour prime minister. Yet his struggle to reach the top was not without consequence. For twenty years he had focused on tactics (destroying enemies, building tabloid press support, toppling Blair) and neglected strategy (cultivating support within Whitehall, developing policy ideas). It was this weakness that led to a summer of speculation about a snap general election, culminating in “the greatest misjudgement of Brown’s long career, utterly changing the way he was perceived and defined.” That is the assessment of Damien McBride, Brown’s closest ally and top media advisor at the time.
After finally toppling his rival, Brown enjoyed an unprecedented honeymoon in the top job. Just a few months previous, Blair had fired the starting pistol on the fight, claiming “if we can’t beat this lot [Tories], we shouldn’t be in the business of politics at all”. Brown was the most adequately prepared PM since Jim Callaghan, but nothing could have prepared him for the immediate crises of his premiership. Failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London were followed by sudden flooding across large parts of England. Then, just four hours into a well-earned Dorset holiday, he was forced to U-turn and deal with a foot-and-mouth outbreak. It was the third major crisis to befall the country in the first six weeks of his tenure.
Brown’s ‘Father of the Nation’ approach defied his critics and gave him his highest ever approval rating of 65%, with a Tory 10-point lead reversed to a 7-point Labour lead in just two months. By July, Brown looked to portray himself as a more consensual politician, calling for a government “of all the talents” and making an offer to Paddy Ashdown to join. The Independent later noted: “To have dissociated himself in 100 days from 10 years of government and to present himself as the candidate for change is an astonishing achievement.”
In the Evening Standard, Tom Bower, who had been a longstanding critic of Brown said he was: “Confounding his critics and defying his own character, Gordon Brown has, in fewer than 100 days, proved to be a vote-winner…The transformation is little less than astonishing. Doubters have been practically suffocated.” Phil Gould, Labour’s legendary polling guru, told Sky News: “I think we will win now, I think we would win later, I think we would win all the way through.” Commentators and strategists spoke of an air of calm emanating from Downing Street, exemplified in the early advertising slogan by Saatchi and Saatchi: “Not flash, just Gordon.”
It contrasted with a torrid time for the Tories and David Cameron. After two years of initial optimism, his party was beginning to show signs of fatigue with modernisation. The summer of 2007 would become his own personal summer of discontent. From the outset, Cameron and Osborne had set out to de-toxify the party, and appeal to the voters captured by Tony Blair. In doing so, they set themselves on a collision course with the rank and file over issues such as grammar schools – which led to the resignation of Graham Brady and a forced reshuffle of a key Cameronite in David Willetts.
Cameron then organised a PR trip to Rwanda to announce that the party would maintain the Labour level of overseas aid budget. The trip would be a disaster. Dogged by stories of a divided party, he was attacked by populists Anne Widdecombe and David Davis for avoiding ‘bread and butter Tory issues’. Cameron held firm, and warned the party not to retreat into the ‘comfort zone’. He then ‘triggered’ the right wing of his party by asserting that “I am proud of the fact that we are the greatest aid donor to Rwanda.” His misery was compounded when the media accused him of neglecting his constituents, as flooding hit his constituency in Whitney. The Daily Mail twisted the knife, and he was reported to have told his aide Steve Hilton “I should have stayed at fucking home.”
As Brown swooped in with a flood rescue package, he was, for a short while, perceived as being above the political posturing associated with Blair and Cameron. At a time when the public wanted change, being the ‘Heir to Blair’ was electorally damaging for Cameron. Brown solidified a good start by persuading Quentin Davies to cross the floor – and had a discussion with John Bercow about doing the same. The Conservatives were then beaten into third place by the Liberal Democrats in two by-elections held in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield.
The Southall By-Election debacle was a huge gaffe for Cameron, following the controversial selection of Tony Lit – as it emerged the candidate had been to a Labour fundraiser with Blair just two months earlier. Combined with the Brown Bounce, Labour hit the mystical 40% mark in the opinion polls for the first time since 2005. Experts predicted that if it were to be repeated in a general election, Labour would win a Commons majority of 114 seats. The Daily Telegraph reported a Tory party in crisis and claimed that a ‘widely respected Tory backbencher’ had confided: “The mood is abysmal. There’s a hole at the heart of the Cameron project.”
Brown had been calculating the best possible election date since day one. He brought in Douglas Alexander to chair an election committee and Ed Miliband was given the job of producing the manifesto. According to Phillip Webster of The Times, Brown almost triggered an election during his coronation speech in June 2007 – with a March 2008 date to be pencilled in. Yet at the last minute, Brown decided against it. In July, Spencer Livermore became the strongest advocate of an autumn date, and Stan Greenberg, Brown’s favoured pollster, told him that he had established himself as a strong leader and a figure the electorate trusted. When the Northern Rock crisis struck in August, Brown was shocked that his ratings had not taken a hit, and reaffirmed his view that an election should take place soon.
Yet Brown dithered. Having spent the last 20 years plotting and scheming to reach Number 10, he was damned to give it up after just a few months in charge. The Tories latched on to it. They spoke about the need for Brown to win more seats than Blair had in 2005 or he would be portrayed as a lame duck. With Blairites within his own cabinet circling, Brown needed to be certain of a better performance. It seems surreal to think now, but had Brown achieved a majority of less than 50, there would have been a great deal of pressure on him to resign.
Brown’s insecurities were matched by Cameron’s. But Cameron had a much better poker face. Internally Cameron was told that the ‘ground game’ was not ready, and that the activist base felt that a Labour victory was inevitable. Yet things slowly started to turn, as Cameron benefited from drafting Andy Coulson into his team. The ex-Sun man played a big role in the increased vitriol towards Brown in the paper, and in September they attacked him over the Lisbon Treaty. The paper accused him of “an act of betrayal which will haunt the prime minister for the rest of his political days”
As Labour’s conference approached, Brown did little to dampen the speculation. Brown was still thinking tactically rather than strategically. He invited Margaret Thatcher round to Number 10, which was widely praised by old Tories such as Norman Tebbit, but alienated the trade unions and lifelong Labour voters. Brown was beginning to look more and more like a conniving politician, rather that the ‘Father of the Nation’ he had crafted. As conference began, the media focused on Brown appointing election agents. Douglas Alexander was sent out to claim the party was ready for a general election at any time whilst Ed Balls inadvertently pondered whether the bigger gamble was to go to the country now or wait until next year.
Brown did not mention an election in his speech. But he was accused by The Times of plagiarising Al Gore. Various accounts say the accusation unsettled Brown, who was thrown into a fit of rage that lasted for days, and clouded his election planning. Instead, he kept the speculation mounting, to cause further jitters as the Tories met in Blackpool. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his career. The Tories were galvanized by the prospect of an election, and united behind the leader for the first time in months. Labour were then hit by a triple whammy.
First George Osborne announced a raising of the threshold for inheritance tax from £300,000 to £1m if they won the next election. It was a clear attempt to gather the centre ground and appeal to the constituencies that held the balance of power. Secondly, Brown tried to play politics with a trip to Basra to meet troops – to coincide with Cameron’s own conference speech. It was meant to deliver a pre-election boost – by announcing that 1,000 British troops were being withdrawn from Iraq before Christmas. But it had the adverse effect and confirmed the perception of Brown the public had always had – about his Machiavellian nature and his focus for short term tactics over long term strategy. John Major was wheeled out to complain about the “cynical timing’ of the move, and Brown was on the back foot. By the time of Cameron’s career defining speech, the party was ready to back him. After months of pressure to reverse, Cameron ignored their calls and gave his boldest speech yet. Speaking without notes, he talked about the need to change the party and the country. He urged Brown to “call that election” and “let the people decide.” The speech did enough to unsettle Brown and shift the political momentum. A snap poll showed a 7 point swing to the Tories.
The final meeting took place on Friday 5th October. All but Ed Balls from Brown’s inner circle attended. Greenberg presented a grim picture of 150 marginal seats, and Cameron’s inheritance promise was now a clear vote winner. He told Brown that there was the possibility of a hung parliament, which added to Brown’s in-built cautious nature about an election. It confirmed that he needed more time to build up a case in the country. The speculation had been deeply disorienting for thevparty. The ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ approach had exposed them as political opportunists and he needed to fight back.
Yet Brown couldn’t have handled the announcement any worse. His team decided to release a pre-recorded BBC interview with Andrew Marr. But other broadcasters discovered the scoop after a tip off from a worker at the BBC. Jealous of the BBC preference, Adam Bouton stuck the knife into Brown, declaring the election backtrack an ‘abject humiliation’. The press were savage, and even his own side gave him a kicking. John McDonnell claimed it was “an utter fiasco” and accused the “inexperienced, testosterone fuelled young men in Browns team” of presenting “the Tories with an own goal, making a Labour leader look weak and re-associating the party with spin.”
Brown refused to admit he had made a mistake. Much like Theresa May and her ‘nothing has changed’ the public, aided by a boisterous press, began to openly ridicule the prime minister. The following week Cameron destroyed Brown at PMQs: “The question is: can we believe anything the prime minister says?” To ecstatic Tory laughter, he added: “You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you were going to win it.” Unfortunately for Labour, Brown never looked like winning an election again.