What tests a political leader in an open system is how he or she reacts when something goes pear-shaped, as it always will. On the campaign trail, endless, intense, tightly-scheduled days when the candidate gets increasingly tired and hoarse, things go wrong more often.
When a missile struck the Barrack Obama campaign, what happened? Hardly an eyelid moved. He was Doctor Cool. The message is not just one of calm purposefulness to the world in general but to the candidate’s team. Obama’s body language said to those closest to him: nobody even thinks about blinking. We deal with it, whatever it is, then we stop dealing with it and move on. Saying little and saying it only once takes nerve.
The small tragedy of Gordon Brown’s reaction to the voter from Rochdale was not what happened when the Prime Minister climbed into his car but what followed after his “bigot” remarks had gone global. The Labour campaign have agonised about getting the “real” Gordon Brown across to voters; attaching a lapel mike was one small way of making that happen. Brown’s ticking off his aides for the “disaster” was recognised by his team because they knew it was the truth. “Authentic, at least,” said one long-suffering Brown aide familiar with mood swings from the Prime Minister. A fit epitaph.
And then Brown could not even exercise the self-mastery to keep his apology short. This mistake is well caught by Matthew Parris in this morning’s Times.
Brown is in denial about a basic fact of democratic politics as it has been clear since at least the Athenian republic. Brown thinks that leadership is about strategy and decision-making. Surely it is. But it is also, like it or not, about performance. Deep down, he knows it.
UPDATE 30/4/10: Jon Stewart’s wonderful take on the lamentable tameness of British political scandals and the moment when Brown’s “political career leaves his body.”