How bad is it? That, apparently, is the question on every Labour MP’s lips. My view is: he is badly wounded, but there is no way to tell if it is fatal.
It started so well. Brown seemed to cope with floods and a failed terrorist attack ably. The opinion polls were good. He signalled that the UK would be less subservient to the US. There was talk of constitutional reform. But…
Brown always faced a more difficult task than Blair. In 1997 Blair faced an exhausted and discredited Tory administration. Brown’s task is to do what has only been done once before in living memory (incredibly, by John Major, in 1992): to win a fourth
term for his party. Major himself has often remarked that he thought that in 1992 “the democratic elastic was stretched too far”; meaning - I think - that it was not actually a good thing for one party to win four times (though I think actually he would have been happy had the Tories gone on winning!). Personally, I have some sympathy for this “elastic” view (all governments become lazy and corrupt if in office for too long), but then I feel a tugging at my elbow and hear a whisper in my ear: “Come on, Politaholic”, it says, “Would it not be wonderful if there was never, ever, ever again a single-party Tory Government”? (This is one reason why Labour would be wise to consider electoral reform). Anyway, I drift from the point. Brown’s task is an uphill one; Blair in 1997 was pushing against an open door.
Brown, for all his talk of renewal and change, can hardly depict his government as a fresh departure. He was Chancellor for ten years, and a particularly powerful one. The Government was in effect a Blair/Brown “duopoly”. All the central economic policies of the Government: the good (tax credits - a good idea even if the implementation left much to be desired), the bad (PFI), and the ugly (PFI again), have his fingerprints all over them. Again, Brown may well privately have “had reservations” about the Iraq war, and may have been distressed to see shedloads of cash disappear down an Iraqi plughole, but he said not a dickey-bird. The war is as much his as Blair’s.
There are some problems governments simply cannot solve. There really is no “solution” to health care or crime. There are things a government can do in these areas that are for “better” or for “worse”; but nothing they can do to simply solve all the deep-rooted problems that, as time goes on, they will be increasingly blamed for. There will always be waiting lists and scares about crime figures. I can’t remember a time when there was not. Governments will always, when they have been in office for a time, get it in the neck for this. All governments suffer this fate.
Has he been unlucky? Well, up to a point. It isn’t Brown’s fault some half-wit lost a data disc (and another, and another…). The Tories are trying to say it has to do with cost-cutting. Maybe; but aren’t they the ones who say there are tax-savings from inefficiencies and wastage (that old chestnut)? On the other hand…driving licence details go missing in Iowa. What the bloody hell are they doing in Iowa? Well, it’s obvious; they have been contracted-out to some dippy US-owned private firm. And who is gung-ho about PFI and PPP and contracting-out? Step forward, Gordon Brown.
It hasn’t all been bad luck. Much of it is, as they say, “self-inflicted”. The truth is that Brown is as addicted to spin as was Blair; he just isn’t as good at it (although, mind you, it often back-fired on Blair).
(a) The “Goats” is a disaster waiting to happen. It is a purely opportunist ploy and it will back-fire. If, further done the line, Digby Jones does not resign from the government amid a frenzy of publicity and at a time calculated to do maximum damage to Labour, I will eat my own head.
(b) The “election-that-never-was” made Brown look incompetent and indecisive; particularly damaging since his pitch is that he is “not flash, just Gordon” quietly getting on with the job of governing. Well, no…he was trying to wrong-foot the Tories and it exploded in his face. Worse, he made himself look ridiculous by denying that the decision not to call an election had anything to do with the opinion polls. Does he think we are all stupid? Why not admit it? Why not say, “Well, of course, all politicians take account of the polls, and if David Cameron says differently he is being disingenuous…”? Would that not have been a better line to take?
(c) The inheritance tax decision looked, and was, opportunist. Of course, politicians are
opportunist. The trick is not to look it
. Not so bloody obviously anyway.
(d) The donations scandal is in some ways a legacy inherited from Blair. But that brings us back to the point that Brown was Chancellor all that time. He cannot say it has nothing whatever to do with him. In any case, why steer poor feckless Harriet Harman towards Abrahams, if you think there is something dodgy about it? Brown’s pledge to reform the system looks a bit like bolting the stable door post facto.
(e) If the Government do end-up nationalising Northern Rock the question will be: why wait so long before doing it? I am not an economist and don't really know if nationalising it is best. I suspect so, since otherwise the government has no real control over the sqillions poured into it, and the execs who fucked things up can stroll off with sackloads of cash. But one thing I do know is this, whether it is best to nationalise or not, it is not
a good reason not
to nationalise that it will make the government look "old Labour" (that's the obsession with spin again).
(f) What the hell was that farrago about the signing of the European Treaty all about? It angered everyone: pro and anti European (for opposite reasons). Pathetic.
(g) The 42-days detention is another purely opportunist ploy, designed to make the government look "tough". Skipper says the number of labour rebels on this is enough to ensure a government defeat. If so, here's another exercise in spin which will back-fire.
Then there is the vexed question of Gordon’s character. It isn’t so much that he is less comfortable in public than Blair. All that public-school schmooze and charm wears thin after a bit. Brown’s unease in public could be seen as quite an endearing characteristic (“not flash…”); could even be evidence of sincerity and genuineness (as against Cameron’s off-putting PR polish). No, the problem is two-fold. First, Brown seems to have no sense of humour whatsoever; when he smiles he looks like someone who has been told that he should smile. Then again, Thatcher had no sense of humour (famously not getting the joke when she said of Whitelaw that “every Prime Minister should have a Willie”), it isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw in a politician. But in Brown’s case it doesn’t help. Second, he seems to lack any sense of self-depreciation (so did Thatcher, but Blair was good at it, or at pretending it); he is evidently utterly intolerant of criticism (he seems to find it physically unbearable); he obviously loses his temper with Cameron at PMQ’s; and goats notwithstanding finds it impossible to give up government-by-cabal. I suspect that in these respects he will never change. Old dogs.
Then there is the economy. From what I can gather from reading the economics pages it looks like a bad patch – credit crunch, stalling house prices – is looming. The obvious conclusion is that this will damage the government. Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps voters will prefer a steady hand at the wheel to the untried PR man Cameron? If only Brown can convince the voters that his hand is
steady. (Then again, as Clive Dunn would say, Middle England “don’t like it up them”; they will squeal and squeal if they can’t turn their houses into cash-generating machines. But property prices will pick-up again. Eventually).
Then there are the polls. Bad for Labour; but not as good for the Conservatives as they might be. Indicating a hung parliament rather than a Tory victory. Hence Cameron’s earnest wooing of the Lib-Dems; although, as Charles Kennedy pointed out on the Marr show recently, it is a bit of a problem that one party is pro-European and the other is still Eurosceptic (hardly much of a “progressive consensus” there). Incidentally, isn’t it odd that both opposition parties are now led by Blair clones, each following the Blair “how-to” book to the letter?
And there is time. There need not be an election until 2010; although it will probably be 2009. It’s a long way off. Paul Linford says Brown has six weeks to sort things out. I guess the argument is that, if it remains as bad as it is now in six weeks the “brand image” (of incompetence and failure) will have become permanently fixed, and won’t change thereafter. Skipper suggested six months, but now thinks maybe Linford is right. Bob Piper is more optimistic. I think I agree with Piper; it’s a long way off, and a lot can happen. True, Major never really recovered from Black Wednesday, but failing to call an election isn’t in the same league, and although Brown has the problem of the exiled Blair court quietly spinning like mad against him (while all the time denying that they are doing any such thing and pledging loyalty), the party is not divided in the way Major’s was over Europe.
So what is the conclusion? Don’t know really. I think it is not over yet, by a long chalk. The Tories have their vulnerabilities too: their grassroots is restless, and Cameron is all fluff. It’s half-time. Labour scored an early goal; but now the Tories are a frankly jammy two-one up. There is still the second half. Here is what the manager said at half time: a bit less spin, lads; stop re-announcing policies already announced (an old Brown foible); don’t be so obsessed with tactically wrong-footing the Conservatives, just concentrate on your own game; get out of Iraq (and Afghanistan) as quickly as bloody possible (so to speak); take some distance from Dubbya; find some radical policies (stop talking about constitutional reform and bloody well do it); and, you, Gordon, lighten up, old son, you’re Prime Minister…