Brown’s Budget Week Anti-sleaze Shock

April 22, 2009
John Pienaar

John Pienaar

On the eve of the budget, Prime Minister Gordon Brown grabs headlines with an announcement about MP expenses. BBC’s John Pienaar suggests how such a leadership decision might be analysed

Budget day [April 22nd 2009] but there is another story dear to the hearts of MPs preoccupying our parliamentary representatives. Yesterday, Prime Minister Brown did something quite unexpected, both in message and medium chosen to communicate it. In a U-tube video he announced that he intends to move swiftly against the deeply unpopular system of MPs expenses. Unpopular that is for the public at large, but seriously popular for the majority of MPs benefitting from current arrangements.

The shock was partly because Brown had appeared to be ducking the issue of acting swiftly over the contentious issue, aided by an on-going investigation by Sir Christopher Kelly.

All the signs were that public outrage over bankers was now transferring to public outrage over MPs expenses, threatening career-damaging results for the Government. Opposition MPs, unlikely to be found completely unsullied through such revelations, are likely to suffer from what might be called friendly fire in the battle.

Maybe the shock was partly also because of a simplistic stereotype of Gordon Brown as a vacillating leader unable to act decisively or imaginatively. It is easy to make the case as a mood of national frustration with events is sweeping all before it. This week, one paper labelled Gordon the worse Prime Minister of all time.

The stereotype has been useful shorthand in countless attacks on the Prime Minister in the media and from political opponents in Westminster. My point here is not to defend Brown as to point out the possibility that there is some contrary evidence in past behaviours. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown revelled in startling budget day stories which at very least kept opponents on the back foot at the time. One of his first actions as a new Chancellor was to relinquish control over the Bank of England (retrospectively challenged, but at very least imaginative and decisive.

Why did Gordon act so decisively?

BBC’s John Pienaar spotted the point. Commenting on the newly released U-tube he observed that such decisions operated at several different levels, so it was hard to arrive at a simple explanation of specific whys and wherefores.

In other words, it’s too simplistic to assume Gordon acted to appease public opinion, or out of moral indignation, or because he didn’t want Alistair Darling to grab the headlines or because he wanted to find news that would play better than likely reaction to the budget. As academics like to say, it was a decision made under conditions of considerable uncertainty. Unfortunately, the academic acceptance of ambiguities does not fit comfortably in a culture impatient for answers This is contrary to the ‘Yes or no, it’s a simple question’ approach of Jeremy Paxman in his Newsnight interrogations).

Can’t we do better than that?

I geenrally find more in Pienaar’s thoughtful approach than in Paxman’s petulance. I also assume share Pienaar’s view that political decisions are made after consideration of a large number of salient features. That’s a hypothesis based on an assumption that political leaders plus advisors operate under complicated and uncertain conditions, in which the important questions are not amenable to yes/no, right/wrong resolution. Unfortunately, Pienaar’s point remains unsatisfactory to the extent that it offers little on how a leader might be advised to take major decisions.

Might we be able to assess whether Gordon Brown was acting effectively and decisively, or ineptly and impulsively? Or am I also falling into either/or thinking? Can’t we do better than just accepting the ambiguities around strategic decision-making?


Put another way, what sense might we make of the decision by Gordon Brown to act how he did, when he did? The decision reversed a more measured approach to the issue of MP expenses, (the on-going investigation) and one which he himself appeared to approve of until the announcement?

Thumbing through my leadership notes, I find useful suggestions. Under conditions of extreme pressure, a leader is more prone to resort to favoured strategies which may override rational considerations. Information is filtered to conceal some of the complexities of the situation. Bob Woodward’s accounts of the Bush regime contains repeated illustrations of denial and doubtful decisions.

Overall, this decision also seems consistent with another favourite principle I have written about. In an earlier post, I looked at a Gordon Brown decision when he was Chancellor. He grabbed the headlines with support for England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup.

At the time I compared the decision to The Tarrasch principle in chess.

[The Tarrasch principle] suggests that strategically you should act because you want to, or because you have to, but not simply because you have the option. Mr Brown acted because he wanted to, perhaps also because he judged it was better now than waiting for a more favourable time, and in that sense because he had to, or miss a promising opportunity. In other words, it was not just because it was an available option open to him.

Which doesn’t tell us precisely what informed the Prime Minister’s decision, but it might make sense of it, and serve as a guide to leaders facing tough decisions.