Gordon Brown lumbered back into parliament this evening to speak in an adjournment debate at 7.10 pm. Even before dinner he managed to look both over-fed and a bit exhausted. His thick dark hair has grown greyer and longer than when we last saw him barrelling out of Downing Street, in May 2010, having just blown the economy and the election.
He entered the chamber unaccompanied. When the speaker called him, he stood up in a little pool of empty space. Perhaps fellow MPs feared being sucked into the red dwarf of his extinct career. As he spoke, his mood seemed chastened. His rhetoric was noticeably muted and unshowy. But his pomposity remains undimmed.
‘I rise on behalf of myself,’ was his opening phrase. His cause was the loss-making Remploy factory in Fife whose disabled workers face redundancy if the government pursues its plan to close the unit.
Brown is fronting a trio of local interests which wants to rescue the business. For some reason he was cagey about the ‘marine product’ that Remploy manufactures. ‘Thirty thousand garments’, he said bashfully are being made every year and sold, ‘both in this continent and worldwide.’ Translation: the factory makes life-jackets and flogs them in Norway, Denmark and America.
As a number-cruncher Brown is peerless. He gnashed his way through the statistics and spat them out in a chewy cascade of hundreds, thousands and millions. Fixed costs, overheads, raw materials, insurance, payroll. He had it all pre-programmed into the mighty electro-chemical abacus that lurks beneath his greying scalp. He even did his favourite trick of announcing the same figures twice! Early on, he said that the factory’s losses of £1.6 million had recently shrunk to a more manageable £800,000. Later, when he repeated this fiscal trend, he hinted that it was a major economic breakthrough. The old knack of making bankruptcy sound like a new dawn for all mankind is still with him.
At one point he personalised the issue and betrayed a bat-squeak of emotion. For over thirty years, he said, he has been acquainted with the factory. ‘I know the workers personally’ he added and he commended them for accepting lower wages in the hope of saving their careers. But if they lose their jobs, he went on, with a sonorous quaver in his voice, ‘they will not work again.’ A deathly hush seemed to settle over him from somewhere. And his nearest colleagues shuffled a little further away.
To give him his due, he presented a compelling case with fluency and compassion. And the government will have to act on his advice or risk looking heartless, short-sighted or even vindictive.