A week, so the saying goes, is a long time in politics, but it took even less than that for Gordon Brown to go from bruising political heavyweight to Westminster punchbag.
At the beginning of this month, all the talk was of November elections, a healthy lead over the Conservatives and a Prime Minister ready to secure five more years in power. But just days later, Brown lost his nerve. Amid political surveys showing David Cameron's Tories catching up fast, he announced there would be no election. He then made things worse by telling cynical reporters that the decision had nothing to do with the opinion polls.
What is so damaging is that the fiasco is of Brown's own making. Talk of an election was fostered by those close to the Prime Minister and left to build in the press. To climb down, seemingly on the back of a few polls, made him appear weak and undermined his reputation as a fierce political strategist.
Equally damaging were the steps taken when an election appeared to be on the cards. In particular, Brown flew to Iraq to announce troop withdrawal in the middle of the Conservative Party conference. Such overt electioneering prompted accusations that Brown's promise to end the culture of spin inherited from Tony Blair's decade in power was no more than spin itself.
It has put Cameron, virtually written off in the press as an electoral candidate just a few weeks ago, in a strong position. The Conservatives scored political points with crowd-pleasing conference proposals to reform inheritance tax.
And, amid wide-spread scepticism of Brown's claims not to have been swayed by the polls, Cameron has taken the moral high ground, branding the prime minister a 'phoney' and delivering a drubbing in the House of Commons.
The creative execution that won Saatchi & Saatchi the Labour Party's advertising account used the simple tagline 'Not flash, just Gordon'. It played on his reputation as an honest, robust operator, in contrast to the PR-friendly, poll-led approach to politics perfected under Blair and mimicked by Cameron. The danger now is that Brown is seen as no different from either of them.
We asked Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, and Terry Hunt, chairman of EHS Brann, how Brown could regain the initiative.
DIAGNOSIS 1 - RORY SUTHERLAND VICE-CHAIRMAN, OGILVY GROUP UK
If you want to be a great political brand, constant vote-chasing is no way to go about it.
Brown's predecessor made this mistake. By living every day as though it were election eve, Blair became sclerotic and useless. An obsession with press approval effectively killed the chance (Iraq aside) of making any difficult or memorable decisions. Unlike soap powders, politicians do not need to be likeable every day, or even at all. The opposite is true: we unconsciously want politicians to take difficult long-term decisions on our behalf.
By obsessively ringing journalists at 6am, it seems Brown has not shaken off a compulsion for marketing. He should. While you're at it, Gordon, cancel the papers, and ignore all advice from marketers until four weeks before the next election - swing voters don't give a damn about day-to-day politics anyway. Follow your conscience with some controversial decisions - a few polarising principles which, re-elected or not, will assure your place in history, even if, like Thatcher, it is only as a great 'Marmite' brand.
- Make a big reduction in the tax burden on working families.
- Increase tax on non-renewable energy.
- Adopt a world-leading position on animal rights.
- Think the unthinkable on welfare reform.
- Pay for your own (modest) holidays; send your children to state schools.
- Although energy-awareness is important, discourage your wife from showering with new-age crystal freaks.
DIAGNOSIS 2 - TERRY HUNT CHAIRMAN, EHS BRANN
Gordon is really rather dull. Who hasn't glazed over during one of his TV interviews as he fired treasury statistics in that relentless monotone of his?
He has also, boringly, kept Britain's economy on a steady course over the past decade. Drearily, he has succeeded in supervising steady economic growth and investment in public services. And, yawn, he's done more than anyone to protect the country from high unemployment.
Gordon is not flash, just reassuringly competent at running a country. For the majority of people, unflashy competence is just fine. Who wants a daring mortgage broker these days?
Of course, this week's argy-bargy over the phantom election has reintroduced gravity to the Brown bounce, but that's no bad thing. Everybody likes to see a competitive fight.
My colleagues at Euro RSCG London have just won the Tory Party election account. They'll have a lot longer than they expected to plan their campaign. But I know who I'd pick to win between dashing Dave and unflash Gordon.
- Take the current media battering on the chin. The media wasted time and money on an autumn election, but they'll get over it.
- Leave podcasts, text messaging and Facebook to Cameron. Nobody under 30 will be impressed and most of them can't be bothered to vote anyway.
- Don't be deterred from taking good ideas from the Tories. It really annoys them.
- Go back to being dull.
This article was first published on Marketing