Gordon Brown has held one of the four great offices of state for 11 years now. Until recently, he had a good reputation. His decision to give the Bank of England independence was lauded. His decision to block Blair on the euro met with similar sighs of relief from the public. People generally were reassured when he stood up at the dispatch box saying "billions" in his gravelly voice.
Indeed, when the 2005 election campaign was going badly under Alan Milburn's management, Alastair Campbell, who was brought back for the campaign, insisted that Brown be given a big role, and then sent him round the country shoulder-to-shoulder with Blair on a "Vote Blair, Get Brown" ticket.
So why have things changed, and when did they change? They changed in 2008, upon the appointment of Steven Carter in January. Carter was brought in because Brown was getting overwhelmed by the number of people simply walking into his office and wanting to dump problems on him, or have a chat. Carter was meant to control the Prime Minister's time better and handle his PR more effectively.
Unfortunately, the Steven Carter era has not been a success. In December 2007, YouGov showed Labour 5 points behind the Conservatives (perfectly manageable in mid-term), but we suddenly plunged to 24 points behind (the latest poll shows a mild recovery to 13 points behind).
At root were what could only be termed as mishaps or gaffes. All of a sudden stuff started to get leaked to PR Week. So you started to get stories there that Brown was cold-calling people at 6 am. Brown has been calling people for 11 years, but the records showed that no-one was called early in the morning. We've had damaging tittle-tattle that the PM is supposedly obssessed with Tory spindoctor Andy Coulson, stories about who has had rows with whom, leaks about re-organisations. Lots of the stories have no basis.
The leaks can only be coming from Carter's team. If Labour people want to leak (and by and large MPs and their advisors and staff are extremely disciplined and rarely do this), it is to one of the mainstream newspapers and tabloids, not to PR Week.
Even worse is the lack of political nous of the new team. For example the advice to the Prime Minister to dash from one TV studio to another - Blair never did that, his appearances on TV were rationed and other ministers always appeared first. And then there are the oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-they-did-that moments. As Lance Price says in the Telegraph,
For sheer embarrassment, the picture of Gordon Brown sitting down to an eight-course dinner just hours after telling us all to waste less food surely takes the biscuit.
........ Somebody should have seen this particular PR disaster coming. It's the equivalent of allowing the Prime Minister to be photographed next to a door with a large sign marked "Exit". Even the most junior press officer should be able to spot a blunder as glaring as that one.
Colin Byrne, ex Labour party press officer, made the same point on his blog, except more pungently:
Quite what prompted the incompetents - as they clearly are these days for all their fat salaries and big job titles and egos - in the No10 bunker to have the PM telling us to eat up our crusts one day and be photographed waving a glass of wine around the G8 dinner table as he tucked into the conger eel the next is beyond this simple communications guy’s understanding
It's hard not to agree that Byrne's characterisation of Carter and his team as "incompetants with fat salaries and egos" is on the mark.
The fact is, Gordon Brown did much better in his pre-Carter days, when he was awkwardly shambling along with his in-house team and open-door policy. Because he was authentic then, till Carter got hold of him, and the public sensed it.
I think Brown should sack his new PR team, and ask old Labour hands to come in to help - Campbell, Byrne, Price and others. At least the Labour hands understand politics. And they are always loyal to the Labour party.
P.S. I understand that Steven Carter gets paid £180k, which is the same as the Prime Minister, and Carter's secretary is paid £70k, which is more than MP's. It adds insult to everything. The Prime Minister is responsible for the whole government, Carter merely has to deal with PR, and he can't even do that properly. What a waste. By contrast when Brown was in the Treasury, his advisors were low paid, and some like Sue Nye, worked unpaid out of loyalty, and they did a sterling job. Just goes to prove that bringing in highly paid outsiders doesn't guarantee success.