Sunday, December 23, 2007

My review of 2007

For the past 10 years, I have written a review of the political year for the Newcastle Journal. This year's was published yesterday, and here it is in full.

***

Eventful? The political year 2007 was certainly that. Entertaining? Well, that too – if you are the kind of person who enjoyed seeing Gordon Brown fall flat on his face, that is.

But as for epoch-making – only time will tell if 2007, or 6 October, 2007 to be precise, will go down as one of the great turning points of modern political history.

That was the day that Mr Brown finally resolved the question that had dominated the agenda ever since he had taken over as Prime Minister in June - whether or not he would hold a general election.

His decision not to go to the country changed the political weather at a stroke and left Labour on the defensive for the first time in 15 years.

The widespread public reaction to the decision was that a government that appeared to have so little confidence in itself certainly did not deserve the confidence of the voters.

Suddenly, a Labour Party which had carried all before it for a decade and a half began to look like losers.

The mistake, though, did not lie in the decision itself. Despite his earlier surge in popularity, by October the polls clearly showed the best Mr Brown could have hoped for was a hung Parliament.

No, it was in having allowed the speculation and planning to get so wildly out of control beforehand that the eventual cancellation could only be seen as a humiliating retreat.

The first few months of the year had been dominated by the endgame of the long Tony Blair premiership, played out against the grisly backdrop of the “cash for honours” inquiry.

In the event, no charges were brought, but the stench of sleaze would hang over the Labour Party long after the men from Scotland Yard had departed.

But the background story of the spring was not so much whether there would be charges, as whether there would be a challenge – namely to Mr Brown for the Labour leadership.

For a time, it seemed that South Shields MP David Miliband was the chosen one - not least in Mr Blair’s eyes – but he wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

Mr Blair had stayed on, apparently with Mr Brown’s acquiescence, in order to “take the hit” for what were expected to be disastrous local and Scottish election results in May.

In the event these were every bit as bad as anticipated, with Alex Salmond’s SNP overtaking Labour to become the dominant force in the Scottish Parliament.

After what had seemed like the longest farewell tour since Frank Sinatra, the outgoing Prime Minister finally said his goodbyes with a bravura performance at his last Commons Question Time.

It was followed swiftly by his resignation as MP for Sedgefield to take up a new role as a Middle East peace envoy, though the irony of this seemed lost on most observers.

After such a long spell at 10 Downing Street, it was remarkable how little Mr Blair was initially missed.

An attempted terrorist attack, a spate of summer floods, and even a foot and mouth outbreak were all calmly and competently dealt with by Mr Brown and his new-look Cabinet team.

Even when the global “credit crunch” led to the first run on British bank in 150 years – Newcastle’s very own Northern Rock – the Government acted swiftly to cool the situation by agreeing to guarantee investors’ savings.

Consequently Labour went into the autumn conference season on a big high, with one poll showing a snap election would give them a majority of 134.

But the mood began to change after Mr Brown’s closest aide, Ed Balls, speculated openly on whether “the gamble” lay in going now, or delaying – with the clear implication that the bigger risk lay in delay.

From this, it became clear that uppermost in Mr Brown’s election calculations was not the long-term good of the country, but short-term party advantage.

His subsequent non-announcement created a new political narrative in which a government that had seemed destined to succeed appeared instead to be doomed to failure.

And as if to confirm that view, the government then found itself buffeted by a whole series of mishaps – all of them made and manufactured in the North-East.

First, the Northern Rock crisis blew up again, with questions over whether the £25bn of taxpayers’ money spent propping up the bank would be repaid. The outcome may yet be nationalisation.

Then it emerged that a computer disc had gone missing from the Revenue and Customs office in Washington containing the personal details of 25m child benefit claimants.

Finally, Labour sleaze reared its head again after it emerged that a Newcastle businessmen, David Abrahams, had used intermediaries to give money to the party in breach of the rules on donations.

Within a few short weeks, Mr Brown’s long-awaited inheritance had turned to dust and ashes in his hands.

The turnaround in Tory leader David Cameron’s fortunes was no less dramatic. Earlier in the year he had been vilified for going to Rwanda while floods devastated his constituency and for bungling a policy shift on grammar schools.

But he was rescued by Mr Brown’s dithering and an ace-in-the-hole from his Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, who pledged to scrap inheritance tax for all estates under £1m.

Ironically, Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell had made probably the best speech of the conference season - but much good did it do him.

Within a month he was gone, citing the media “obsession” with his age, to be replaced after the closest-fought leadership contest of modern times by the 40-year-old Nick Clegg.

Mr Brown ends the year in a deep, deep hole, with opinion polls now consistently showing a Tory lead of 10-15pc.

The Prime Minister is nothing if not resilient, but his government, of which Labour supporters had such high hopes, has thus far been a huge disappointment.

Where he promised quiet competence, there has been only ineptitude. Where he promised “vision” there has been only drift. Above all where he promised to restore trust in politics it has been dragged only further into the mire.

Can he turn it around? That’s the question for next week’s column, when I’ll be looking ahead to what we can expect the political year 2008 to bring.

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2 comments:

skipper said...

Paul
You are spot on re 6th October. I don't think GB actually wanted to go early but he allowed himself to be rushed into letting the idea take wing, possibly to undermine the Tories- though for what long term purpose? Has he 'done for' his party? Or can he claw it back in 2008? I'm pessimistic right now but hope he can.

PSJ said...

You don´t mention Broon´s bungled visit to Iraq on the same day as Cameron´s conference speech. That was such an obvious trick with an area of British life that should be non-political that it disgusted many.