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London — Irony is not a quality for which Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain is noted. Irony's associated aspects — self-deprecation, wit, charm — are not part of his personality either. Brown is about bluntness not jokes, but even he must be able to see the amusing irony of his situation today. For at this moment, Brown is giving testimony to the Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot.
Several weeks ago, his predecessor Tony Blair, faced Sir John and his fellow interrogators and tried to save what was left of his reputation. Today, Brown found himself being given a platform to display his Prime Ministerial stature just months before a general election. As the panel and the prime minister break for lunch he has acquitted himself admirably. Somewhere inside he has to be smiling.
Brown has put forth a strong defense for overthrowing Saddam but most of the questions to him have been about the shockingly bad planning for the post-war period (actually the "post-war" ended up being the actual war — getting rid of Saddam was like the varsity scrimmaging the JV. It was only after Saddam was gone the fight began). Here the PM has been clever and firm. There will be future interventions, he asserted, because this is the era in which we live. He called for the creation of a special reconstruction force under the U.N.'s aegis or some other internationally recognized body, that would be on call 24/7 to go into situations where regimes collapse. He has looked very experienced and very prime ministerial.
And this is where the irony comes in. Six months ago, Brown was a dead man walking. With an election likely to be held the first week of May, public opinion polls showed the Conservative Party with a double digit lead — and its leader David Cameron twenty points plus more popular than Brown. But in the last few weeks as Brown prepared for his Chilcot appearance things have changed dramatically. The Tory poll lead has evaporated. The most recent polls show them with a mere two-point lead over Labour. Suddenly Chilcot is an audition for Brown to keep the Prime Minister's job rather trying to explain how it wasn't his fault that things went so badly wrong in Iraq. (That was the Bushies fault — everyone knows that, anyway).
It is hard to judge for certain how Brown's performance will play but I suspect it will earn him grudging admiration. He does look a weightier more intelligent figure than Cameron — although Cameron is youthful, full of vitality and has that most important quality, likability.
But if by some long chance Brown survives in his job — six weeks ago I would have substituted the word "miracle" for the phrase "long chance" — it may well be because on this day, when he was being questioned closely over mistakes he seemed like a man who was still capable of being Prime Minister.