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Doug Saunders

Taking Gordon Brown at face value Add to ...

On Thursday, we saw a face of Gordon Brown that rarely appears in the papers any more.

In the morning, his big silhouette strode across Green Park to Lancaster House, where he launched a conference that brought Afghan President Hamid Karzai together with the foreign ministers of more than 60 countries and the heads of most international bodies to find a plausible end to the Afghan war.

When he called the gathering in November, it seemed a political gimmick. But through weeks of deft negotiations, Mr. Brown managed to extract an unprecedented consensus, albeit an awkward one, that has all the participants aiming for the same goals for the first time in the conflict's history.

The only comparable precedent was Mr. Brown's even greater success, a year ago, in bringing leaders of all the major economies to agree on a simultaneous stimulus-based response to the credit and banking crisis.

Remember that face, the face of a three-dimensional chess master of policy, for it will soon be obscured. Starting in the next week or so, as the writ drops for Mr. Brown's first prime ministerial election campaign, we will be seeing quite another face.

Gordon Brown the political leader is in an awkward position. He faced down the crisis by raising Britain's deficit level to £178-billion, 12.6 per cent of GDP - allowing his far younger and more charismatic Conservative challenger David Cameron to hammer him with surprisingly popular calls for spending cuts. The Labour Prime Minister's policy acumen is matched by a political and managerial awkwardness of legendary proportions. That was evident earlier this month, when two MPs, both former ministers loyal to his predecessor and nemesis Tony Blair, launched a leadership challenge of almost suicidal desperation.

That was followed this week by a devastating book-length indictment of Mr. Brown's political skills not by a Tory or a journalist, but by the man who was once general secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt. He was forced to quit in 2007 over a fundraising scandal, but that doesn't fully explain his drive to destroy Mr. Brown's re-election chances.

His book, Inside Out , describes Mr. Brown's Downing Street as a place unable to make decisions or organize for an election. "Downing Street was a total shambles," Mr. Watt writes. "There was no vision, no strategy, no co-ordination. It was completely dysfunctional. … Gordon was simply making it up as he went along."

You will be hearing, in the coming weeks, much about Mr. Brown's political fumbling, the strange difficulty he has formulating a compelling vision, his astonishing lack of people skills.

Yet, oddly, Britain's Conservatives will have a very hard time winning a majority government, despite pitting an attractive candidate against a Labour Party that's been in power for 13 years and just oversaw the largest economic downturn of a generation.

That other face of Gordon Brown keeps revealing itself - and Britons notice.

By all rights, Britain should be facing one of the worst downturns in Europe. But unemployment rates have fallen sharply two months in a row, leaving the national rate at a very manageable 7.8 per cent.

Britain also didn't see a house-price collapse of the sort that has devastated Ireland and Spain: Economists expect house prices to see a yearly rise of 7.3 per cent. And the London stock-market index has recovered impressively, meaning Britain may have dodged a serious depression.

Much of this has to do with policy. While other leaders were simply bailing out banks or cutting spending, Mr. Brown threw almost £5-billion into maintaining employment levels, including a guarantee that all 18- to-24-year-olds would receive jobs or training, and an activist network of job centres whose methods ought to be emulated elsewhere.

For the past dozen years, his policy approach, of a Scandinavian-style big-spending state that drives public institutions with market incentives, has produced rewards, and they have borne fruit of late.

Last week, he was vindicated by a pair of large-scale studies that showed his approach to reforming the National Health Service in England - a system based on targets, performance- linked spending and other highly managed schemes that annoy professionals - produced vastly better results in waiting times, treatment levels and public health improvements than more expensive non-Brown systems in Scotland and Wales.

The same day, a study by Britain's university administrators found that teenagers from Britain's poorest homes are 50 per cent more likely to attend university than they were in 1995, a testament to education policies he pushed hard from the Treasury.

Remember Thursday's face. When Britons vote, probably on May 6, it may well be a vague memory.

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