22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 20

To understand Gordon's 'Big Tent', imagine its inhabitants trying to put a tent up

HUGO RIFKIND Iv hy does Gordon Brown have a 'big tent'? Why, to be pertinent, does he have a 'tent' at all? There must have been leaders, throughout world history, who have ruled calmly and inclusively and by consensus. Yet if we were to group these people together on a Venn diagram, in their own little circle, surely this circle would not interlock extensively with the one representing 'people who ruled from tents'.

Genghis Khan ruled from a tent. Sheltering under felt on the harsh Mongol steppes, did he ever worry about reaching out to the other side? 'We may disagree on minor matters, such as whether I ought to behead you with my axe,' he almost certainly did not say, to lesser warlords, 'but I sincerely respect your views on the environment.'

Fable holds that the House of Saud started out in a Bedouin tent. That was a real progressive hotbed, was it not? Muammar Gaddafi, too, is a fan. Remember when Tony Blair visited his tent in May? He sat on a cushion, hands on his knees, gurning. Shock and awe in the baking desert. It was hard to imagine John Bercow dropping by and being made particularly welcome.

The tent of Gordon Brown, by contrast, is strictly figurative. As a mental exercise, though, it may be useful for us to imagine otherwise. Let us take Gordon and place him in a campsite. Let us make it drizzle. Now, let us take all of the surprising friends that he has made in the last few months — right the way up to the tottering Lady in Red herself. Let us put them in that campsite, too. Now. Here is my thesis. To understand exactly how much use each of them is actually going to be to Gordon, we must imagine them all together, literally putting up a big tent.

A proper tent, mind. Not one of those idiot-proof three-second things that everybody abandons at Glastonbury. We're talking a serious old-fashioned canvas home here. A huge thing. Triangular. Metal poles. Probably orange, like the Liberal Democrats. Look at them all, slip-sliding around on the muddy grass. It might be all right if somebody like Lord West was in charge. But he isn't. Gordon is. So he's got Quentin Davies tugging the guy ropes one way, and Lord Owen tugging them the other. He's got Johan Eliasch, windbagging away about the damage they are doing to the grass. He's even got poor Patrick Mercer, perhaps humorously blacked up with charcoal from the stove and wondering why nobody is laughing. Where is Baroness Thatcher going to unroll her sleeping mat? Is Ken Livingstone still in this tent? Or has he legged it with the pegs?

What a mess. In most cases, plainly, it is the same factors that made Gordon want these people in his tent that makes them so very bad at putting it up. He had an early taste of that with Lord Malloch-Brown, slapped down for saying what he thought about America, which was his whole raison d'être in the Brown tent in the first place. Over time, this will surely be a growing problem. If Quentin Davies is far enough to the right to embarrass most Tories, how long can he last in the Labour party? If it was unacceptable for one of David Cameron's team to normalise the word 'nigger', why is this not a problem for a Brownite adviser? John Major and Lyndon Johnson both agreed that it was better to have people inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in, but that's only true if the people in your tent know how to piss straight. Some of Brown's lot, one suspects, couldn't even open the flaps.

The 'big tent' only pretends to be about consensus. Actually, it is about power building, about gathering together a posse. You don't need to have conviction, or policies, or even ideas. You just need to have a very big tent. 'Am I not mighty?' roars Gordon, wafting his axe aloft. 'See how many are in my tent!'

One might almost consider the big tent as a sort of harem tent, but that would perhaps be to overstate the charms and importance of the various people it contains. Actually, Gordon collects people like a farmer collects cattle. In truth, his tent is more of a pen. He should remember — he is not the first to try such a thing. During the last Conservative leadership battle, David Davies built a very impressive pen. His grew so big that it became pointless. Cattle started sneaking out.

Such striking images, those pictures of savers queuing outside the various branches of Northern Rock. Are they not utterly amazing? Are they not the kind of scenes you thought that Britain would never see again? All these people, all across the country, and they all actually know where their bank is.

Do you know where your bank is? Really? I have three. Two of them claim not to exist in an actual physical sense, and I think the third might be in Edinburgh, somewhere. It certainly used to be. They sent me a letter, maybe seven years ago, about something closing and something else opening. I must have it written down somewhere.

These must be the sort of people who know what their doctor is called. On forms in A&E, they will never have written, 'It's that modern place next to Sainsbury's. You know, by the church. He's the youngish one. Either from Uganda or Bangladesh.' These are people who know their blood type, and their council tax band. When the chap from the electrical company comes round and asks to read the meter, these are the people who can be relied upon not to say 'My what? Is that the one with the stopcock? Under the bath?'

It may be because, from the photographs, they all also appear to be on the oldish side. Younger people bank online or over the telephone. And, of course, younger people don't have savings. Is that not also remarkable, in this supposed age of rocketing personal debt? So many people with something to lose. If my banks went to the wall, all three of them, I have a horrible feeling I'd be up on the deal. Wherever they are.