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Last Updated: Monday, 8 October 2007, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Watching Brown's fightback

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown had a long day dealing with critics

Gordon Brown has been seeking to regain the political initiative by facing the press, the House of Commons and Labour MPs. Nick Assinder gives his verdict on each of these sessions:

Gordon Brown
Facing his MPs was always going to be easiest bit.
His honeymoon may be well and truly over, but he knew he would feel only a warm embrace when he attended the first meeting of the parliamentary Labour party in the Commons.

That is not to say many of his troops are not dismayed over the way the snap election speculation was stoked up or that some are not deeply uncomfortable with the perception of spin around the visit to Iraq and the subsequent Commons statement - they are.

But they have only just anointed Gordon Brown and are not about to engage in any backstabbing at the moment.

The fact the Tories have their tails up in the wake of the election furore has also served to rally the backbenchers behind their new prime minister

Mr Brown told the meeting that he took full responsibility for what had happened over the previous few days.

But at least it had forced the Tories into revealing their policies, which he could now pull apart, he added.


In any case the occasions on which these meetings have seen MPs turning against their leader in recent years have been few and far between.

With one or two exceptions when Tony Blair was in attendance, it has been the case recently that persistent rebels, the "usual suspects", simply stayed away for fear of being shouted down while loyalists with concerns have preferred to express them more privately.

So Mr Brown's message to this gathering - that he accepted responsibility for the election wobble and that all eyes should now focus on delivering his vision - was readily accepted.

The prime minister will hope this event will mark the end of this particular piece of turmoil and that Tuesday's spending statements by Chancellor Alistair Darling will start moving things on, and back in his favour.


Gordon Brown during his visit to Iraq last week
Gordon Brown has defended his Iraq visit last week.

This was the statement on Iraq Mr Brown always hoped and intended to make, but this was not the way he wanted to make it.

It was undoubtedly designed in part to draw another line under the Blair years and the divisions over the war and suggest this was a new prime minister with a new focus. - even though much of it had been policy under his predecessor.

It was meant to send out optimistic signals over the future of the region and the government's approach to it, with the emphasis on reconciliation, reconstruction and troop reductions. And, to that extent, it was probably a success.

Gordon Brown
But instead of that upbeat atmosphere, the circumstances surrounding it ensured it was Mr Brown's most difficult Commons performance since he became leader.

It all became hugely difficult simply because it became embroiled in the row over the election speculation and Mr Brown's failure to call a snap poll.

As far as David Cameron and others are concerned, the prime minister played political games over the issue as part of a calculated, pre-election spin campaign.

Political capital

They believe he visited Iraq during the Tory conference and made announcements on troop reductions there in order to wrong foot the opposition, irrespective of the fact he had promised to make such statements in the Commons first.

Indeed, it is even claimed this statement had been moved forward a few days to allow the calling of a general election the following day.

Mr Brown flatly rejects such accusations and Labour MPs claim it is the Tories who are trying to make political capital from the affair.

But in the wake of the non-election announcement, David Cameron is on the front foot and, with grim faced Labour MPs lined up behind Mr Brown, he delivered a stinging assault on the prime minister.

It was one thing spinning treasury statistics for a decade as chancellor, said Mr Cameron, it was another thing entirely to engage in spin where peoples lives were at stake.

Policy agenda

"This is just not an acceptable way for a prime minister to behave," he declared.

That clearly stung and did nothing to lift the mood amongst Labour MPs, some of whom are themselves uncomfortable with the way this has played out.

They were there to support their prime minister, and many hope and believe the whole non-election row will quickly blow over as Mr Brown moves onto the substantial policy agenda.

But this statement, far from being another Brown coup after three months of successful leadership , instead saw him battling to make any positive impact.

This was most definitely not part of the Brown plan.


Gordon Brown at his monthly press conference on 8 October 2007
Gordon Brown's press conference was dominated by election talk.

So now we know. Gordon Brown never thought a snap election was a good idea but, apparently, he was almost talked into it by Labour MPs in marginal seats who said he would win it for them.

Then, when push came to shove and after deliberately letting the issue dominate the party conference season, he considered it and "came back to my first instinct".

Of course, he took account of opinion polls and the views of those MPs, but decided it was right to give voters the chance to consider his vision for the future of the country and see some delivery of that vision.

It was never about the opinion polls and chances of victory or an attempt to wrong foot the opposition parties.

However, after a weekend he happily admitted had not been his best, he took full responsibility for the decision and was not swinging the axe at the heads of any of his advisers.

That, at least, is the explanation the prime minister gave for the first blunder of his premiership which brought his political honeymoon to a crashing end.

Political games

The huge questions that remained unanswered at his first press conference of the new political season, however, were why on earth he did nothing to damp down raging election fever if he had always known he might not go for it?

And why did he apparently rearrange government, Whitehall and prime ministerial business in preparation for that snap poll?

He must have known the taunts that would greet any decision to apparently "bottle out" and he must have know he would be accused of playing political games.

What was clear from the prime minister's performance, though, was that he knows he blundered and that he is well and truly on the back foot.

He must be kicking himself - if not others - for the fact he has just squandered his first 100 days in power which saw him winning near universal praise for the way he was running the country.

Square one

To that extent, this press conference represented a bit of a re-launch of the Brown premiership.

It was hard not to recollect the Bernie Ecclestone affair six months into Tony Blair's first term and which saw him insist he was a "pretty straight kind of guy".

This was Gordon Brown attempting to remind voters and members of his party just why they had warmed to him in the first place - so he repeated many of the themes he set out during his leadership campaign.

One of those was about the possibility of major constitutional reform and even the possibility of fixed term parliaments - that would certainly have avoided the "will he won't he" issue.

For the moment, however, Gordon Brown has pretty much gone back to square one. Next stop the Commons for the statement on Iraq...


Gordon Brown tells Andrew Marr there will be no election
Gordon Brown tells Andrew Marr there will be no election this autumn

Gordon Brown's honeymoon was always bound to end - the fact he killed it off by his own hand has been the great surprise.

And the question now is whether he can salvage the situation and get his premiership, which started with his much-praised handling of a series of crises, back on track.

The prime minister has a reputation as a master strategist but, this time, he seems to have made a sizeable miscalculation.

He has been left facing claims he "bottled it" and that he has shown scant regard for the electorate and many in his own party.

David Cameron has, for example, accused him of treating voters as fools by suggesting it wasn't opinion polls that were the crucial factor in his decision.

His task now is to try and re-direct attention away from his greatest setback since he got the job and onto the big policy issues and his "vision" for the country.


To that end he will meet the media face to face in his first press conference since the summer break, will make a Commons statement on Iraq and then meet his parliamentary party.

And on Tuesday, chancellor Alastair Darling will reveal the government's spending plans for the future.

Some of these announcements were brought forward in what was seen as preparation for an autumn election - but they will also serve to give the prime minister a platform from which to re-launch is leadership.

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown took the blame for election fever.
As a result, it is widely believed there will be some surprises in either the Iraq or spending statements in an attempt to snatch back the agenda from David Cameron - the big winner from the "will he, won't he" affair.

The first thing Mr Brown wanted to clear up was any suggestion, put about by the likes of minister Hazel Blears, that all the speculation had been got up by the media.

That has been dismissed by senior government figures including justice secretary Jack Straw who was also eager to accept that the polls had played a part in the prime minister's calculations.

They know the hype was coming from Mr Brown's closest aides and ministers - often those labelled the "teenagers" - and that he could have killed it off with a snap of his fingers.

Policy initiatives

Some of those younger ministers, Douglas Alexander and Ed Balls in particular, will face some of the blame for the hype but, ultimately, it was the prime minister himself who was responsible.

The next job will be to move onto the policy agenda and set out the vision Mr Brown says he wants people to judge him on, whenever the poll now comes - and it now looks like 2009.

One of the planned bonuses from the election speculation was that it forced the Tories to reveal more of their policy initiatives.

So it is worth looking for future moves to steal some of those ideas, possibly on inheritance tax and stamp duty.

But it will take time for Mr Brown to shrug off this setback which will be thrown back into his face by an apparently resurgent and self-confident Tory party whenever possible.

Mr Brown may want to forget his first blunder, and believe voters and the media will quickly move on, but David Cameron is not going to let go.

He will undoubtedly use his first question time clash with the prime minister on Wednesday to suggest Mr Brown was "frit" and running scared of an election it appeared he might well lose.

One of the consequences of the poll chatter was to unite a Conservative Party that had begun to show fresh signs it was ready to engage in more in-fighting.

The irony of course is that while elections can change governments, it seems that 104 days into his premiership Mr Brown has brought about a change in the political landscape by not calling one.

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