Saturday, September 06, 2008

New Labour's Prophets of Doom

My Newcastle Journal column is back this week after the August break. In today's piece, I focus on the recent interventions by Alistair Darling and Charles Clarke and what they may mean for Gordon Brown.


Sometimes, the summer break can work wonders for a government. People forget all the things they disliked about them in the first place, and when politics starts up again in September, it’s as if the slate has been wiped clean.

But given the depths of unpopularity to which Gordon Brown’s government has plummeted over the past year, it was never likely that this would be one of those kinds of summers.

If the Prime Minister did entertain any faint hopes that the August political close-season would herald a turnaround in his fortunes, the interventions of Messrs Charles Clarke and Alistair Darling over the past week would surely have dispelled them.

One of them is among his most loyal and long-standing allies, the other among his bitterest and most implacable enemies, but essentially their message was the same: “We’re all doomed.”

Many people were initially bemused as to why Mr Darling, for so long the mild-mannered Sergeant Wilson to Mr Brown’s Captain Mainwaring, suddenly decided to start playing Private Frazer.

The message in his now-infamous newspaper interview the week before last – that the country faces its worst economic crisis for 60 years - could hardly have been more stark.

Had he, perhaps, been beguiled into saying more than he intended by the female journalist, Decca Aitkenhead, who conducted the interview? He certainly wouldn’t be the first male politician to be caught out in that way.

But no, it turned out that Mr Darling himself had taken the initiative in inviting Ms Aitkenhead to his holiday cottage in the Highlands.

Much more likely, to my mind, is that it was a pre-emptive strike by the Chancellor against being moved in the autumn reshuffle that Mr Brown has been planning all summer.

As I wrote before going off on my own hols three weeks ago, any meaningful changes to the senior reaches of government will have to involve Mr Darling moving on.

But by speaking out about the state of the economy – and being more than candid about the government’s own shortcomings in that regard – he was making it clear that he was not going to go quietly.

Hence if there is now a reshuffle, Mr Darling has probably now done enough to keep his job – especially as South Shields MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband appears not to want it.

What, then, of Mr Clarke? Well, if the essence of Mr Darling’s argument was that we all face economic doom, Mr Clarke was arguing that Labour faces political doom under Mr Brown.

We have become used to these eruptions from the former Home Secretary. He increasingly resembles a large beer barrel which explodes periodically whenever the gaseous matter within reaches a certain level.

But it is too easy to write off Mr Clarke as an embittered old Blairite has-been. While he may have very little support among Labour MP, his analysis of the situation facing the Prime Minister is basically sound.

It is, in essence, that if Mr Brown cannot start to revive Labour’s fortunes within a matter of months, the Cabinet should force him to make way for someone who can.

When Mr Miliband issued his original rallying cry back in July, it looked as though there would be some movement on the leadership issue as early as the start of this month.

All the talk then was of a “Prosecco plot,” conducted by Labour MPs via their mobile phones over glasses of sparkling wine in the grounds of their Italian holiday villas.

But the party has reflected, and appears to have arrived at a collective judgement that Mr Brown should be left in place at least until the end of the party conference season.

If after then, the party still remains stuck in the doldrums, that may be the time for senior members of the Cabinet to make the kind of move that Mr Clarke is urging on them.

Mr Brown’s response so far to the ongoing leadership crisis does not exactly inspire any great confidence that he will be able to prove Mr Clarke wrong and turn the situation round.

We were told to expect a “New Economic Plan” that would show the government working to alleviate the impact of the credit crunch on ordinary people, but like so much of Mr Brown’s premiership, it failed to live up to its hype.

Sure, the proposed stamp duty holiday on properties up to £175,000 will make an impact in some places, but probably not in those areas – including some of the wealthier parts of the North-East – where house prices have reached London levels.

And the fact that Mr Brown has been hastily forced to scrap plans to give people £100 to help them with their rocketing fuel bills does not exactly suggest he is on top of the situation.

Perhaps I myself am being hasty in rushing to judgement on this, and there is more of this so-called “New Economic Plan” to come.

But thus far, it all has the air of tinkering at the edges, a collection of disparate policies without any connective thread or vision to link them together in a coherent new political narrative.

If Mr Brown cannot discover this narrative, nor even hold a meaningful reshuffle, it is hard to see what can rescue him, short of a speech of Sarah Palin-esque proportions in Manchester later this month.

It currently looks about as likely as the Third Coming of Newcastle’s erstwhile footballing Messiah.

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Obnoxio The Clown said...

It is, in essence, that if Mr Brown cannot start to revive Labour’s fortunes within a matter of months, the Cabinet should force him to make way for someone who can.

Jesus Christ, perhaps? It's certainly beyond the capability of mortal man.

Dirty Euro: said...

I dissagree. A new leader would get into power just before a recession, against a strong tory opposition. This would give them no chance of a recovery,. If we do change the leader it should we after the local elections next year. This will ensure nmost of the recession is out of the way and a new leader has a genuine chance of a fresh start. How can you have a fresh start in a recession, with a strong tory opposition learning the ropes at PMQ's?

I also feel the labour party need to be tougher on the tories go on about cocaine allegations about the tory leaders and point out the PM is state educated while the tory leader is priavate school edcuated and that this is why much of the media prefer the tory leader.