Last august when Labour was hitting new lows in the polls and rumours were rife of a plot against Gordon Brown, despairing ministers were willing to vent their spleen at any passing comrade. One I spoke to was dismissive of the view that Brown's unpopularity was simply a reflection of bad presentation. 'The public may say that don't like Gordon for superficial reasons' he said' but deep down they see him saying one thing and doing the reverse. So, he says he's for prudence and the long term but he seems to throw money at political problems. He says he's for a new politics and a big tent but number ten spits out poisonous briefings and he played fast and loose over the election timing. He says he's for social justice but he puts inheritance tax cuts ahead of child poverty'.
A few days ago walking up Whitehall I met the same minister. He was almost jaunty. As we parted he said 'who would have thought it? All to play for in 2009'.
The general interpretation of Gordon Brown's recovery from lost cause to fighting chance is that it is inevitable that we should rest our hopes on the captain when we fear the ship is sinking. But there is more to it than this. As I have said before - drawing on a category form cultural theory - Brown is an instinctive hierarchist. This is a problem in the individualist culture that was until recently dominant. Thus Brown's often hapless attempts to seem like a perfectly ordinary type of guy and the disjunction between his stated values and political expediency.
But now the world has come back to Brown. We crave hierarchy. Suddenly even bankers and free market enthusiasts are fans of regulation (see Daniel Finkelstein this morning for example). So much do we want someone to be in charge that we would rather give them the benefit of the doubt (a rare stance from voters) than succumb to the fear of chaos. Brown is a confirmed statist at a time when we are more willing than for a generation to admit we need strong government.
Brown has also been helped by the Conservative strategy, enabling Labour to focus on today's policy differences rather than the the Government's record, and giving its MPs an external enemy. Last summer when comparing Brown's plight to that of John Major, I contrasted Labour's comparative unity and continued desire to win with Major's hopelessly split Party many of whose key figures cared more about winning the row over Europe than winning at the polls. This strength for Labour has been underlined by Brown's appointment of Peter Mandelson and the cabinet's determination to stay in the centre ground, willing to take on the left on issues such as civil liberties, the post office and welfare reform. This is vital to rebut the charge that Labour's borrow and spend economic strategy is simply a reversion to type.
Four out of the last six general elections have been called after a four year term. So Labour could defend a spring 2009 eelection as being perfectly normal (anyway, once the election is called the row over timing is only ever a one day story, especially as the opposition parties have themselves called for an early election). If I were forced to predict an outcome of such an election I would plump for a hung Parliament with the Conservatives winning several seats in the South but failing to make significant inroads elsewhere.
Given the underlying problems of being a third term Government, the recession and the largely successful de-toxification of the Tory brand this may be the best Labour can expect. But would Gordon go for it? In a perceptive piece reminding us that Brown pulled out of a fight with Blair in 1994 and worked hard to deter challengers in 2007, Iain Martin of the Telegraph asks 'Is Gordon Brown frightened of elections?'. It is highly unlikely that between now and June 2010 Labour will have anything that looks like a safe lead. It would take a combination of strategic certainty and political daring to call an early election when behind in the polls. There are few people capable of convincing a naturally cautious Prime Minister of such a case - but one of them is now his closest political advisor.