Saturday, January 12, 2008

Gordon the grinder digs in the for the long haul

Saturday column published in the Newcastle Journal, 12 January 2008


Before going any further, I would like to make one thing clear. Unlike some fellow commentators, I am not going to spend the ten months between now and the US presidential election in November attempting to draw spurious analogies between that contest and the current state of UK politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying American politics doesn’t affect what happens over here. Any cursory look at the history of the past decade and a half clearly shows that it does.

It certainly did in the 1990s when Bill Clinton’s victory helped lay the ground for the success of Tony Blair and New Labour a few years later.

And it certainly did in the current decade when a Labour Prime Minister found himself dragged into a disastrous military adventure by a neo-conservative US president – an entanglement that eventually cost him his premiership.

But much as I’d like to, I’m afraid I just don’t buy the idea that Hillary Clinton’s dramatic comeback to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday provides some kind of get-out-of-jail card for Gordon Brown.

Certain well-known pundits have spent the past few days trying to construct a “narrative” in which, because one serious, experienced politician has bounced back from adversity, the other will invariably do the same.

Even more ludicrous was the earlier suggestion that victory for the youthful Barack Obama victory in Tuesday’s primary would have provided a boost for the almost equally youthful Tory leader David Cameron.

I look forward to the spectacle of Cameron attempting to remain aboard the Obama bandwagon if the latter wins in November and orders an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But that said, one thing that Mrs Clinton and Mr Brown do have in common, besides experience and seriousness, is resilience.

What we have seen from both of them this week is that, whatever the outcome, they are in it for the long-term.

It may not guarantee either ultimate success, and it certainly does not mean their destinies are somehow joined at the hip as some commentators have sought to suggest.

But it does mean that seeing off either of them will be a somewhat tougher task for their opponents than some recent polls might have suggested.

Mr Brown’s New Year message certainly gave no indication of a politician who is about to throw in the towel. Rather, he is selling himself as the proven economic helmsman who can steer the ship of state through the troubled times ahead.
As I have previously mentioned, the prospect of a serious economic downturn poses some risk to Mr Brown, in that he has been in charge of the economy for the past decade.

Furthermore, while nearly everyone currently regards him as a successful economic manager, a Prime Minister is expected to be more than that.

But if, in 12 months’ time, Mr Brown can indeed claim to have guided us safely through the choppy economic waters, we may well see his reputation recovering to its former levels.

Journalists covering his monthly press conference on Monday may have mocked the Prime Minister’s repeated talk of “difficult decisions” and “long-term choices,” but at least its authentic Gordon.

After the serial debacles of last autumn, he is committing himself to what one commentator called “a long unglamorous campaign of hard graft” to rescue his fortunes.

His hard line on public sector pay is a case in point. Because of the nature of the jobs they do, there will always be a certain amount of public sympathy for the police and the nurses.

But if by putting the battle against inflation once again at the top of his priorities Mr Brown can ensure a soft economic landing for the UK, his stance will have been more than vindicated.

Thursday’s announcement of a new generation of nuclear power stations is another example of a decision which, while potentially unpopular in itself, may yield wider political benefits.

Memories of Chernobyl may have faded, and worries about the industry’s safety record given way to concerns about the effect of burning fossil fuels, but most people still see nuclear energy as, at best, a necessary evil.

But what it does do, once again, is send out a wider message about the government’s long-termism and seriousness of intent.

Even Mr Brown’s opponents may have to admit to a certain grudging admiration for him for taking a decision that the Labour Party would once almost certainly have sought to fudge.

What is clear is that, having decided there will not be an election this year or maybe even next, the Prime Minister is now digging in for the long haul.

There is a clear political logic to this. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and as things stand, Mr Brown does not have to give up the lease on 10 Downing Street until May 2010.

Even if he were to go on until then and lose, he will still have had nearly three years as Prime Minister in which to lay down some kind of long-term legacy, in the hope that history might judge him rather better than his contemporaries.

And of course, there is always just a chance that he might win, if he can govern competently and sensibly enough for the public to change their mind about him again.

Earlier this week Mr Brown was asked – by an experienced radio interviewer who should have known better – whether he was “enjoying” the job.

Much was made of his refusal to give a straight answer, but I suspect that the reason was that, for a puritanical Son of the Manse like Gordon, the question was simply irrelevant.

The truth is almost certainly that he is neither enjoying the job nor hating it. He is just getting on with it.

Indeed, in the circumstances, it is the only thing he can do.

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