Gordon Brown is frequently derided by David Cameron as “the man who crashed the economy”. But with alarm bells ringing in Downing St after a surge in support for Scottish independence, the prime minister has turned to his predecessor to help save the UK.
On Tuesday, in a sweaty Labour party meeting room in Glasgow, Mr Brown showed why he might be up to the job. Passionate – and at one point on the edge of tears – he took on one of Alex Salmond’s most potent claims: that only a Yes vote can save the National Health Service from Tory cuts.
“I love Scotland and I love the NHS,” Mr Brown said, recalling how it had helped to save his eyesight and how doctors and nurses had struggled in vain to save his 10-day-old daughter Jennifer Jane.
The Scottish parliament already had the power to raise £2bn a year more to spend on the health service and would soon have even greater financial autonomy.
Mr Brown has embarked on a one-man mission to save the union and halt the tide of Labour supporters switching to the Yes camp. He has 40 events planned before referendum day next week. Such is Mr Cameron’s desperation, he is prepared to back the judgment of his one-time political enemy
Mr Brown virtually disappeared from the British political scene in 2010 after leading Labour to its worst election defeat since the war. But while his reputation has been trashed by the Conservatives – and some Labour MPs – at Westminster, in Scotland he is seen differently.
In an example of the gap between Scottish politics and the rest of the UK, it is worth noting that Mr Brown’s Labour party won 41 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster in 2010; the party’s vote share in Scotland actually increased to 42 per cent.
Nevertheless, until recently Mr Brown has been a marginal figure in the No campaign. One Labour MP said the former prime minister had been in a “giant sulk” because he had not been given a more prominent role, with the campaign led instead by his former chancellor, Alistair Darling. Tensions between the two men are well documented.
But last week, as Downing St watched the No lead begin to evaporate with growing alarm, Mr Cameron was persuaded that Mr Brown was the man to help address the campaign’s greatest weakness: the haemorrhaging of Labour support to Yes.
One Tory strategist admitted the turning point in the campaign had been the assertion by Mr Salmond, SNP leader, in the second televised debate that only by voting for independence could Scotland save the NHS from Tory cuts. In that debate, Mr Salmond claimed Mr Darling was “in bed with the Tories”.
Few would make that accusation of Mr Brown, still brooding after surrendering the keys to Number 10 to Mr Cameron and preferring to campaign under the Scottish Labour banner rather than the cross-party Better Together flag.
On Tuesday Mr Brown asserted it was preposterous to suggest that a No vote would endanger the NHS. “Do you think we would ever let the NHS be privatised or cut without a fight?” he said.
Mr Cameron was also finally prepared to back Mr Brown’s judgment that all three pro-union parties should set out a firm timetable for delivering new powers to Holyrood to reassure Labour voters that a No vote did not mean “no change”.
The prime minister’s aides confirm he was initially sceptical. The three parties had already set out their various plans for further devolution but no agreement on the detail was likely; Mr Cameron thought that setting out a timetable would simply draw attention to those divisions. Others in the No camp said talk of new devolution was a distraction and that voters were in any case ignorant of what powers Holyrood already had.
But Mr Brown steamrollered his opponents: he argued that Labour voters switching to Yes needed to be given hope that something in their lives would change if they voted No. He insisted that if Scots had more control over their destiny in Edinburgh, they would be less swayed by Mr Salmond’s argument that only independence would rid them of Conservative rule. As Mr Salmond put it yesterday: “I’m 59 and for half my life Scotland has been ruled by a party it did not elect.”
Mr Cameron’s team admit the choreography of the announcement of a devolution timetable was chaotic but say he looked at the polls and decided at the end of last week to back Mr Brown’s call.
The prime minister arrives in Scotland on Wednesday to make the case for the union, but even senior Tories admit Mr Brown is more likely to have an impact on swing Labour voters as he embarks on what could be his last big mission in British politics.