Sunday, October 14, 2007

Has Gordon entered the twilight zone?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Saturday 13 October 2007

It all started so well. A smooth transition, with the party more united than it had been for years. A catalogue of crises, swiftly and competently dealt with. A skilful distancing from the Blair era, the decisions on supercasinos and cannabis suggesting that New Labour had finally rediscovered its lost moral compass.

Just how did it all go so wrong, so quickly for Gordon Brown?

The speculation about a snap election, which almost certainly began as a tactical tease to unsettle the Tories, ended up spiralling so far out of control that it trapped the Prime Minister in a lethal dilemma of his own making.

In the end, with the polls in key marginals pointing towards a hung Parliament, he made the only decision possible – to call it off, take the hit, and try to buy himself more time.

Back at the beginning of August, I said in this column that holding an election this year could cause irreparable damage to the "Brown brand."

“The Prime Minister's whole appeal rests on being seen as a man of serious purpose and high principles - not someone who is prepared to cut and run at the earliest opportunity. Were he to do that in order to take advantage of a temporary downturn in Tory fortunes, he would risk destroying that reputation at a stroke,” I wrote.

Well, the only thing I got wrong there was my assessment that it would take a snap election to damage the Brown brand. He's actually managed to damage it - possibly irreparably - without having one.

Had he called the whole thing off while Labour was still ahead in the polls, everyone would have applauded his statesmanship. Instead, he waited until David Cameron had caught him up, with calamitous results.

Yet in a way it wasn’t the Prime Minister’s decision not to hold an election which was the most damaging thing he did last week, nor even his cack-handed and frankly disingenuous attempts to explain it away.

No, the really damaging decision was not postponing the election, it was using Tuesday’s pre-Budget report to implement the Tory manifesto.

Okay, so I admit that I was among those who advocated that Labour needed to do something to neutralise the inheritance tax issue after the Tories’ success in Blackpool.

But even I didn’t think they’d do it so quickly and so blatantly, even pinching the idea of taxing the so-called “non doms” to help pay for it – the very idea that, a week earlier, they had ridiculed.

So why was this so very damaging to Mr Brown? Because it demonstrated that the Tories, for the first time since Labour came to power in 1997, are now making the political weather.

This is when governments need to fear for their futures – not when they are assailed by one-off crises, but when they start to lose control of the political agenda.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne - who has emerged in the past fortnight as a serious political force – said of Mr Brown that he “talks about setting out his vision of the country, but he has to wait for us to tell him what it is.”

That is a charge so damaging to the Prime Minister that it has had MPs and commentators alike talking darkly of “tipping points” having been reached.

I have written about tipping points in this column before, those moments in political history when the public mood changes overnight and all things start to conspire towards one end.

I have witnessed two in my lifetime, the first in 1978-79 when the Winter of Discontent destroyed the postwar consensus and with it Labour’s credibility as a governing party.

Jim Callaghan famously captured the moment in his memorable phrase uttered to an aide on the eve of the 1979 election.

“There are times when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a change, and it is for Mrs Thatcher,” he said.

The next sea change, of course, happened on Black Wednesday, 16th September 1992, the day the Tories lost their reputation for economic competence

It then did not matter what poor John Major said or did – he was going to be unceremoniously kicked out of office, and eventually, on 1st May 1997, that is what came to pass.

The danger for Mr Brown is that his government, like Major’s, is now entering a period of what the Germans would call Gotterdammerung – the twilight of the gods.

Far from renewing Labour in office, it could be that his destiny is to spend the next two years fighting back the inexorable Tory tide, while Mr Cameron prepares for his inevitable victory.

So is there anything, anything at all, that Mr Brown can do about it? Well, as long as he is Prime Minister, he always retains the power of action, and that is not to be under-estimated.

The trouble is, we’ve heard too much talk about Mr Brown’s “vision” and too little evidence of him putting it into effect.

Part of that vision was meant to be about restoring trust in politics, but he can’t now do that just by not being Tony Blair. It is clear something much more fundamental is required.

For starters, I think Mr Brown is going to have to be much more radical in his plans to give away power, putting real decision making in the hands of localities and communities.

For what it’s worth, I also think the political cross-dressing has to stop. The past week has surely shown Mr Brown that there is no real advantage to be gained in apeing the Tories, when the public can just as easily vote for the real thing.

If he is to regain the political initiative, he will need to set out an agenda which people will see as authentically and distinctively his own - one based on fairness and social justice.

For those of us who have always thought of Gordon Brown as a man of principle who would usher in a new era of political honesty and an end to spin, these are difficult days indeed.

Yes, he can still recover – but it’s going to be no easy task.

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