Monday, November 26, 2007

Is Gordon Brown the Steve McClaren of British politics?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, November 24.


It’s a familiar enough story. Long-serving Number Two finally steps up to the top job after years of waiting for the boss to move on, only to see it all go to pot within a short space of time.

But am I talking about ex-England manager Steve McClaren – or Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

For all his achievements in getting Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup Final, McClaren’s best work was done as a deputy - to Jim Smith at Derby, Alex Ferguson at Man U and Sven Goran Eriksson with England.

Will the history books similarly say Brown was better cast in a supporting role to Tony Blair? If so, the past week may well come to be seen as a defining moment.

One of the truest old sayings in politics is Harold Macmillan’s famous dictum that the biggest problem facing any government is “events, dear boy, events”

What I think he meant was that it is often a government’s ability to deal with the unexpected which determines its success or failure.

Before the summer break, the Brown government could do no wrong in this regard.
The attempted terrorist attacks, the floods, foot and mouth, even the early days of the Northern Rock crisis were all seen to have been calmly and competently dealt with.

But since then, thanks to what is now being described as the curse of the cancelled election, very little has gone right.

Northern Rock is a case in point. Chancellor Alistair Darling was seen to have successfully defused the initial crisis by acting to guarantee peoples’ savings and stemming September’s run on the bank.

A couple of months on, he finds himself under fire for having loaned the bank billions of pounds of public money, although not all would echo those criticisms.

As one experienced observer of the North-East scene told me this week, the key issue in this part of the world at least is not the future of the loans but of the Rock’s 5,700-strong workforce.

“There is a North-South divide in the coverage of this story. In the South, it’s all about the money. In the North, it’s all about the jobs,” he said.

Far more damaging for the government is the scandal of the loss of 25m people’s computerised records - a story which also originated in the North-East.

It began on 18 October at HM Revenue and Customs office in Washington when a junior official sent two CDs containing the records unregistered via courier.

As everyone now knows, the package failed to arrive, and ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, were eventually told about it on 10 November.

But it was not until this Wednesday that the whole affair was finally made public in a Commons statement by Mr Darling that brought gasps of astonishment from even his own side.

In the short-term, the extent of the political fall-out will depend on two things. Firstly, whether ministers are seen to have in any way sought to conceal the truth about the debacle.

The Tories are already alleging that email records show the government’s original account to be incorrect, in that HMRC senior managers were aware of the breach of procedure.

It will also depend, of course, on whether the lost discs do indeed end up falling into the wrong hands.

Although that is an obvious risk, it is probably just as likely that they will end up being used as ersatz coasters or as bird-scarers hanging off a beanpole in some suburban garden.

In the longer-term, though, the real damage to the government lies in the impression of sheer incompetence at the top that this and other recent political developments have created.

When he cancelled the election, Mr Brown memorably said that while he could have fought an election on “competence,” he wanted also to set out his “vision.”

Well, while we’ve still seen precious little evidence of the great vision, what wouldn’t Labour MPs give now for a little bit of basic competence?

In the words of one commentator: “Mr Brown’s political persona for the past decade has been built on his perceived capability. If that goes, he does not have much else left.”

What Mr Brown should have realised is that most governments stand or fall on their reputation for competence rather than the brilliance of their “vision.” Ask John Major.

His own government’s reputation for competence disappeared down the plughole on 16 September 1992 – Black Wednesday - when he was forced effectively to devalue the pound.

It is still too early to call 21 November 2007 Brown’s Black Wednesday, but there are some obvious comparisons to be made.

One is that Mr Darling, like his predecessor-but-two Norman Lamont, does not possess the political authority to reassure either the public or the City in such troubled times.

There is, of course, a more charitable way of looking at all this – to say that it’s the kind of thing that could happen to any government at any time, and that Messrs Brown and Darling have just been unlucky.

You could say the same about Steve McClaren. It was not easy for him going into a crucial qualifier without his entire first-choice back four or two leading strikers.

But in the end, in politics as in football, you make your own luck, and it is no use governments relying on public sympathy to bail them out when they’ve clearly made a mess of things.

When it comes down to it, the electorate - like the FA - are a pretty unforgiving lot.

free web site hit counter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The well established 'Peter Principle' states that managers are promoted to their level of incompetence!

Template Designed by Douglas Bowman - Updated to New Blogger by: Blogger Team
Modified for 3-Column Layout by Hoctro