Gordon Brown and Bernard Madoff are separated by a single detail – Bernie's pleading guilty
Jeff Randall believes that the Prime Minister's mismanagement, which has brought us a dysfunctional state as well as financial disaster, will prove far more costly than any Ponzi scheme.
What's the difference between Bernard Madoff and Gordon Brown? Answer: one has drained fortunes from gullible victims, plundering their income and savings to create an illusion of prosperity. The other is going to jail.
Mr Madoff has thrown in the towel. His Ponzi scheme, whereby he needed to suck in ever greater quantities of other people's money in order to maintain a semblance of competence, collapsed under the weight of undeliverable expectations. Nobody knows for sure how much has gone missing, but Wall Street scribes are calling it a $65 billion fraud.
Not bad for peddling fresh air. It is, however, a nickel-and-dime swindle when set alongside the
12-year con trick perpetrated by Mr Brown on British taxpayers. That, too, has been a form of Ponzi, but with many more zeroes and little chance of the mastermind ending his days in what Americans call Crowbar Hotel.
The Prime Minister is nothing if not a man of vaulting ambition, with a desire for power which, like Macbeth's, "o'er leaps itself". While Big Bucks Bernie was snaffling billions, Mr Brown had his sights trained on trillions.
Five trillion, to be precise – that's £5,000,000,000,000 – which is how much Labour has taxed and spent since it came to power. In 1998-99 its Budget was £333 billion. By 2008-09, the Government's annual expenditure had grown to £618 billion. Every year, the sums required to shore up the house of cards became bigger and bigger. But while the good times rolled, too few cared to notice what was really going on.
We await with trepidation this year's stab in the dark. On the basis that bad numbers take longer to add up than good ones, it is ominous that the Chancellor has put back his annual showpiece to April 22, the latest it has been for many years. One fears that fiscal discipline has been thrown over the fence, replaced by a confection of guesstimates, wishful thinking and spin.
Though the scale of their operations was very different, the sales techniques of Mr Madoff and Mr Brown were remarkably similar. Mr Madoff persuaded clients that he owned the secret of everlasting growth, a way of defying financial gravity. His unique selling points were, yes, stability and prudence.
So, while the returns of rivals bounced about in line with economic conditions, Mr Madoff kept producing a steady, above-average performance. Or so it seemed. He never claimed to have abolished boom and bust, but invited punters to infer that, thanks to his genius, this was indeed the case.
Over the years, Mr Madoff stretched the credulity of his constituency well beyond what a rational man might have thought possible. Those who tipped cash into his coffers seemed anxious, in some cases perversely determined, not to ask difficult questions. The trompe l'oeil was too delicious to be questioned. For a while, fantasy economics passed for reality in New York and London.
When the elastic finally snapped, so did Mr Madoff's resolve. Rather than conjure yet more elaborate excuses to cover the hole where his clients' investments were supposed to be, the old rogue confessed. He could no longer bear the strain of living a lie. Coming clean, it seems, was a relief.
It's at this point that comparisons to Mr Brown come to an end. For not only is there no prospect of the Prime Minister pleading guilty, he refuses to acknowledge any aspect of his catastrophic mismanagement. It may seem impossible to believe, but Mr Brown, far from recognising that he has ruined Britain, still has plans to save the world.
The astonishing element of Mr Madoff's magic is that, by all accounts, he made the money disappear. Investigators do not expect to find it stuffed under a Manhattan mattress or locked away in a Panamanian bank. They say that it has literally vanished. One minute it was in a Florida savings account, the next it was being propelled through the ether and beyond. Whoosh! Mr Madoff's loyal followers have been left with a whole lotta nuthin'.
For the victims of Mr Brown, it's worse than that. Much worse. His legacy is not an empty box. If only it were that simple. What he will leave behind is a dysfunctional state, stripped of sovereignty, up to its eyeballs in so much debt that not even our children's children will be free from the burden.
The misguided promotion of multiculturalism and open borders that marked the first and second phases of Labour's administration will continue to undermine social cohesion. Children in comprehensives will be handed debased certificates of success, while falling further behind pupils in grammar and independent schools. An unfunded pension system that is, in effect, an inverted pyramid of unaffordability will buckle and crack.
The Prime Minister's shameless blaming of others for this mess has been rumbled. Even senior civil servants are spilling the beans. Hector Sants, chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, pointed to the Prime Minister's complicity in the economic crisis. He said there had been "a prevailing mindset of Government and society promoting the benefits of credit and asset inflation, notably in housing".
Everywhere, there has been scandalous waste. But, as the banking system soaks up unimaginable sums, voters are suffering from "billions fatigue". They find it hard to put into context ministers' depredations of the public purse. When, as happened this week, the Public Accounts Committee calls a £500 million information system for prison officers "a spectacular failure" and "a masterclass in sloppy project management", we are not shocked.
Attempts by critics to stem the flow of government profligacy are met with the predictable response from Downing Street that savings of any sort will mean job cuts, school closures and an abandonment of hospitals. This scare tactic may have worked in the last general election campaign, but looks risible now.
On Newsnight, the ridiculous Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, kept a straight face while insisting that the Tories' proposed tax cut on pensioners' investments would mean an end to Britain's apprenticeship schemes. I mean, really! Who is feeding her this claptrap?
The Prime Minister's nightmare is that his credibility is crumbling faster than the nation's finances. His timing is woeful. Between now and the next election just about every indicator of wellbeing will move in the wrong direction. Rising unemployment, bankruptcies and home repossessions will remind an ungrateful electorate how little it owes him.
Bernie Madoff got away with it for so long because his clients wanted to believe in reward without risk, something for nothing. He told a US district judge: "I'm deeply sorry and ashamed for my crimes. I am painfully aware that I have hurt many, many people."
Here, in the Court of Public Opinion, Mr Brown will show no such contrition.