Labor’s Love Lost
By MAUREEN DOWD
Gordon Brown’s smile does not look at home on his face. It sits there uneasily, like an uninvited guest at a party, until his features can resume their comfortably dour grooves.
The brooding Scot ended his decade-long run as a hefty Heathcliff to Tony Blair’s chatty Cathy, stepping out of the shadows Friday with visible relief to begin a campaign for prime minister that he has already won.
Grumpy Gordon is an enigma compared with Captain Showbiz, as the glib Mr. Blair is called by a morning TV host here. The 56-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister, with hooded eyes and frugal charm, will be hard pressed to compete on the European stage with Iron Frau Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, dubbed “Thatcher without petticoats.”
Mr. Brown’s school friends came on TV to say he was more fun than he looked. “He enjoys a good glass of wine,” said his pal Bill Campbell.
The chancellor has been striving to move beyond his reputation as a man so obsessed with the budget that he wouldn’t even share the details in advance with Tony Blair. He traded the green eyeshade for pastel ties. He told a women’s magazine that he liked the rock band Arctic Monkeys, but later couldn’t name any of their songs.
Mr. Brown was considered the uncool half of the Cool Britannia team that swept into power on a wave of Champagne, celebrities and Cherie Blair’s New Age guru. But thanks to his role as W.’s interlocutor and translator, Tony Blair is uncool, too.
The first boomer prime minister got a blazing start in trying to make Britain more modern and tolerant. But he fell in with an American crowd of bullies who were turning back the clock on modernity and tolerance, and Tony abused Britons’ trust.
Growing fearful that he would inherit a bankrupt franchise, Grumpy decided this was his “nobody puts Baby in a corner” moment. The frowning apprentice gave the drowning prime minister a shove out of Downing Street. Maybe the last straw was the movie “The Queen,” chronicling Mr. Blair’s political finesse after Princess Diana’s death. It mentions Mr. Brown in passing, when Tony is too busy to take Gordon’s call and tells an aide to put him on hold.
Grumpy let Tony take the lead 13 years ago, believing Tony would hand off power to him eventually. While Mr. Brown felt intellectually superior, he knew his media skills were wanting. They still are. His debut was, as the BBC put it, “a bit of a hash.”
He got an uninspiring £100 haircut, which was “lost on everyone,” as one reporter dryly put it. Arriving for a photo-op breakfast at a supporter’s home in Southgate, the door slammed and locked on him, leaving him ringing the bell as cameras rolled. Once inside, he tried to talk to a blond little girl, but initially she froze him out. During his big speech, a teleprompter obscured his face, and he faded into a bland beige background. On top of that, Tony Blair chose that hour to attend a ceremony unveiling a statue of a soccer star, so news channels had to split the screens for part of Mr. Brown’s speech — a visual reminder of their tortured Lennon-and-McCartney partnership.
The Odd Couple had periods of not speaking, and Mr. Brown’s disdain for Mr. Blair’s style showed. “I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy,” he said. “I do not believe politics is about celebrity.” He dropped the New Labor logo from the Labor Web site. He promised to restore power to Parliament to rebuild trust in democracy — a knock on the way Mr. Blair ignored public opinion to invade Iraq — and to give more protection to civil liberties.
Mr. Blair’s defensive yet defiant resignation speech was elaborately stage-managed, with spinners fanning out afterward to puff up his legacy, even though, despite the remarkable achievements of Kosovo and Northern Ireland, his legacy will be buried in the blood and sand of Iraq with W’s. The speech set off a torrent of contempt about the era of spin he had introduced, with critics saying it had rotted discourse. The expert spin that helped him win three elections was also used to raise fears over Saddam’s phantom W.M.D. TV played the clip over and over in which Mr. Blair said Saddam had W.M.D. that could be activated in 45 minutes, but the former Blair consigliere Peter Mandelson asserted that Tony didn’t want an ally to have to go to war alone.
On Friday, the commentators began to fret that Mr. Brown needed more spin. How would he fare against the young conservative David Cameron, known as Blair Lite, if he couldn’t get the teleprompter out of his face, or keep his pant leg out of his sock?
Was he too old? Could he wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled?