Sunday, December 30, 2007

My preview of 2008

Following on from my annual Review of the political year, here's my political Preview of 2008, first published in yesterday's Newcastle Journal.


Twelve months ago, the central question which was dominating British politics as Tony Blair prepared to bow out as Labour leader and Prime Minister was “Can Gordon lose?”

One year on, with Mr Brown having succeeded to the top job unchallenged, the question is: “Can Gordon ever win again?”

The Prime Minister’s decision to funk an autumn election after appearing to prepare and plan for one created a new political narrative in which his administration seemed doomed to failure.

Whether he can recover will not only be the key talking-point of the new political year, but will also go a long way to determining the outcome of the next election whenever it is held.

Before going on to look in detail at Mr Brown’s prospects, here’s three things that, I confidently predict, won’t happen in 2008.

First, there won’t be a general election. Having ruled it out in October, Mr Brown can scarcely change his mind again, and with the economy set to take a turn for the worse, he can only now win by “playing it long.”

Second, there won’t be a referendum on the EU Treaty. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that Labour has broken its promise on this, but the point of maximum danger for the government has now passed, perhaps overshadowed by other events.

Third, the Liberal Democrats won’t change their leader again. They are stuck with Nick Clegg now until the election, though if that turns out as badly for them as the opinion polls are suggesting, the poor chap’s political career could be over at 42.

Away from these shores, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto looks certain to trigger a new wave of instability in the Islamic world, with the position of Pakistani leader and US ally General Pervez Musharraf looking increasingly unsustainable

It is also, of course, election year in the US itself, with the succession to George W. Bush currently looking wide open.

If Hillary Clinton runs away with the Democratic nomination, the Republicans will surely want to counter her with someone of similar weight and experience – and that means either Senator John McCain or former governor Rudy Guiliani.

Much more will become clear after Thursday’s Iowa caucuses which are expected to show which of the numerous candidates currently has what Americans call “the Big Mo.”

But what of Mr Brown and Labour? Well, the short answer to the big question is that, yes, he can recover, but the longer answer is that it depends on the confluence of a number of factors, not all of them within his control.

The first prerequisite of any recovery, besides demonstrating some basic competence, is for the Prime Minister to set out, if not a “vision,” then certainly a “big idea” that provides some connective thread to his government’s actions.

A number of possible options have been suggested, ranging from a new drive for social mobility under the banner of “opportunity for all,” to a generalised commitment towards “building the future,” starting with housing.

Either way, Mr Brown has to come up with something that gives people more of a sense of what his government is about, other than remaining in power for as long as possible.

Secondly, Labour needs to try to switch the focus of attention onto what alternative remedies the Tories are proposing for the nation’s current ills.

The one huge silver lining for Mr Brown in all his travails is that the public’s disappointment with him has not thus far been matched by an outpouring of enthusiasm for David Cameron.

If people don’t currently know what the central purpose of the Brown government is, neither do they know what would be the point of a Cameron one

For sure, the Tory leader is getting the mood music right, but with the sole exception of the proposed cut in inheritance tax, there remains a marked absence of specific, thought-through policies.

But the biggest determining factor in whether Mr Brown can mount a sustained recovery will, as always, be events.

The likelihood of an economic downturn will carry a particular danger for Mr Brown in that he was Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years. If it does all go wrong, there will be no one else to blame.

Some Tories believe the potential nationalisation of Northern Rock could yet provide a “Black Wednesday” type moment for New Labour.

Their thinking goes that if, in 2008, the government were forced to take a major bank into public ownership, it would symbolise the defeat of everything New Labour was supposed to stand for.

Could it get so bad for Mr Brown that he is forced to consider his position? I don’t consider it particularly likely, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.

Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul wrote this week: “The latest idea doing the rounds among serious Labour people is that of a David Miliband-Ed Balls dream ticket, with Miliband as prime minister and Balls as chancellor.”

My only comment on this is that if anyone thinks Miliband-Balls is a “dream ticket,” it is a measure of how bad things have got for Labour.

If there is to be another change of leadership, a more likely option is either Jack Straw as a safe pair of hands, or the return of one of the leading Blairites such as David Blunkett or even Alan Milburn.

So, cards on the table time - what do I think? Well, mainly because I do not think the public are yet convinced by Mr Cameron, I think there probably will be a Labour recovery of sorts.

It will not put Labour back into the lead, but it will leave sufficient room for doubt about the outcome of the next election to intensify the speculation about what Mr Clegg will do in the event of a hung Parliament.

The fact remains, though, that Labour’s best opportunity to renew itself in office came with the departure of Mr Blair, and they bungled it.

Whether another such opportunity will come along - and whether Mr Brown will be able to take it this time – is the question to which no political pundit really knows the answer.

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1 comment:

MorrisOx said...

Like you, Paul, I am almost shell-shocked that anybody - anybody - with a serious claim to be in tune with the political zeitgeist could possibly consider Miliband and Balls to be a dream ticket.

The suggestion is fantastically out-of-touch. Surely the real heir apparent is Douglas Alexander ;)

Brown's hopes rest on three things: how much or how little the electorate blame him for an downturn that may herald a drastically changed economic landscape; how quickly he can come to terms with the limits of his backroom boys (and his own ability); and whether Cameron can gain any self-generated traction.

Brown still seems like a man who defines himself in comparison to his predecessor. Those days - and the economic latitude that went with them - are long gone.

We're into a new era and a new leader with a new agenda has yet to emerge.