Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brown does while Cameron talks

The Boy Dave may have done good this week, but he couldn't change the fact that oppositions are at the mercy of events. Here's today's Journal column.


It was, of course, a Conservative Prime Minister who coined the famous truism about the nature of politics - namely that governments are invariably at the mercy of “events, dear boy, events.”

But what Harold Macmillan didn’t say was that oppositions can be just as vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in the political weather.

The truth is that “events” are an ambivalent force of political nature, and can just as likely ride to a government’s rescue as to blow it off course.

And in the case of the global economic crisis, it is David Cameron’s Conservative opposition – not Gordon Brown’s Labour government – who have been left scratching their heads.

This week’s party conference in Birmingham should have been the opportunity for Mr Cameron to “seal the deal” with a British electorate that has still not quite taken him to their hearts.

With a lead in the opinion polls of around 20 points going into the conference season, their plan was to give the public a much clearer idea about what a Cameron-led government would actually do.

But the global credit crunch changed everything. New policies which had spent up to two years in incubation swiftly had to be torn-up or rewritten.

Mr Cameron’s own keynote speech apparently went through five or six rewrites as each new twist in the economic crisis hit home.

In the circumstances, he didn’t do half badly. Platform oratory is one of the Tory leader’s big strengths and many who watched his speech on Wednesday would have seen a PM-in-waiting.

His line about how it would be “arrogant” to try to prove you’re ready to be Prime Minister was just the sort of self-deprecation the British naturally warm to.

He was right, too, to say that if experience were the only criterion for choosing a PM, the government would never change – though wrong to compare himself to Mrs Thatcher in this regard.

The Iron Lady was far from being a political novice when she entered No 10, having served in Ted Heath’s Cabinet for four years and been an MP for 20. Mr Cameron, by contrast, only entered the Commons in 2001.

But David Cameron’s real problem this week was not lack of experience, but lack of relevance.

The economic crisis has left the Tories not only impotent in the face of events but ideologically on the wrong side of the argument.

Their traditional support for deregulation and free markets – and traditional opposition to the role of the state – is now looking increasingly at odds with the new political and economic realities.

They also seem confused as to which way to turn. For instance, they were against the nationalisation of Northern Rock, but in the case of Bradford and Bingley this week, they were rather unconvincingly in favour.

And if Mr Cameron has not been aided by events in the financial world, neither has he been helped by much else that has been going on politically over the past 48 hours.

We began this conference season with poor Nick Clegg trying to get a look-in amidst the financial turmoil, and we end it with the Tories too being overshadowed by happenings elsewhere.

First, there was the resignation on Thursday of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair at the instigation of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Although Sir Ian’s demise was long overdue, the bull-in-a-china-shop fashion in which Mr Johnson handled this will, in my view, come back to haunt him.

Then yesterday we had Mr Brown’s long-awaited reshuffle – and the sensational return of former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson for a third spell in the Cabinet.

In a sense, justice has been finally done. Mr Mandelson was forced to quit the Cabinet in 2001 after the Hinduja passport affair despite having done absolutely nothing wrong.

There is no doubting it is a massive coup for Mr Brown as he seeks to unite his fractious party and imbue it with an “all hands to the pump” mentality as it seeks that elusive fourth term.

He was rebuffed by Darlington MP Alan Milburn, rubbished by former Home Secretary Charles Clarke - but blow me if he hasn’t gone and landed the biggest Blairite of them all.

Labour Kremlinologists will immediately see the significance of Mr Mandelson rejoining the Cabinet at the same time as his old rival, Newcastle East MP Nick Brown, who returns as chief whip.

The briefing war between the Blair-Brown camps in the ’94 leadership battle was largely played out between these two, and this will be seen in the PLP as an attempt finally to put the old feud to bed.

The return of Mr Mandelson undoubtedly represents the biggest gamble of Mr Brown’s career. If he is forced out a third time, the Prime Minister’s judgement will be shot to pieces.

But if on the other hand Mr Mandelson can bring to the Brown administration the same strategic brilliance he displayed in the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, it will have been a gamble worth taking.

As for Mr Cameron, he is now being forced to face up to an uncomfortable truth about opposition – that while oppositions merely talk, governments can do.

Over the past few weeks, Mr Brown has used the power of incumbency, the power to shape events rather than be blown about by them, to absolutely maximum effect.

A lot of very clever and influential people thought that the Prime Minister might not survive this conference season, but against the odds he has come out of it far stronger than when he went in.

One thing is absolutely certain. If Mr Brown is going down, he is certainly not doing so without a fight.

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Diablo said...

And you get paid how much for this?

I know you are an old 'hack', Paul but this is really wishful thinking aimed at your old North-East readers who will lap this sort of stuff up for breakfast.

"One thing is absolutely certain.... Mr Brown is going down...", as Peter might have spinned.

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Paul, he doesn't claim to be unbiased, and he is expert on the workings of the labour party. But he regularly reads and understands , so his claim that GB was 'against the odds to survive the conference season' feels sloppy (cf Polly).

The main thrust of this week's article was that, because of the credit crunch, DC looks 'irrelevant'. True. So how are the voters going to view GB's performance? How many are convinced that GB is the man for this crisis, when he has repeatedly claimed that he had beaten 'boom and bust'? Is there an appetite to give GB the benefit of the doubt?

It is all down to GB---that's how he runs things. But nobody knows how to cope with the current crisis, and it is tough to see how it could work to this govt's advantage.

Paul Linford said...

his claim that GB was 'against the odds to survive the conference season' feels sloppy

Er, I don't think I said this. I said that it was against the odds that he has emerged from the conference season stronger than when he went into it.

Dirty Euro: said...

Political betting is rubbish. It is just propaganda for gambling. I do not support such a website. How many political people will be connived into gambling, or betting tricksters by that website, with it's users.
I bet (not literally) a few people will be encouraged to waste their hard earned dosh on some bookies.
Betting is not a good thing to infect into the political system in any way. It is corrupt, and betting enocourages fixes.
It is very biased too.
It is all about odds and oddities. LOL.

skipper said...

An odd thought crossed my mind as I read your piece. In The House of Cards a widely distrusted Cabinet member, Francis Urquart, becomes PM because there is no-one seen as better. If Mandy does help turn things around, and is seen to do such a thing, might it be just believable he might become a contender? Stranger things etc...

Paul Linford said...

Not now he's in the Lords, Bill.

Interestingly, though, I think Mandelson (and Blair) did once entertain thoughts about him possibly leading the Labour Party one day, though it would have required the party to become so thoroughly Blair-ised that no other possible successor would have been imaginable. Back in the real world, Blair never really did try that hard to persuade his party to "learn to love Peter Mandelson." In fact he sacked him from the Cabinet in an act of blind panic when he had done absolutely nothing wrong.

The only way I can see in which Mandelson might have become leader is if Blair had gone for the Lab-Lib merger idea after '97, enabling him to marginalise Brown, Prescott and the old left. But that would almost certainly have led to a breakaway "Real Labour" party and the same kind of fragmentation on the left that gave us 18 years of Tory rule in the 80s and 90s. The upshot might have been that Mandelson and Brown would by now both be party leaders - but in opposition.

Anonymous said...

Mandy cannot be the party leader. Homophobia is unfortunately too strong. Anyone openly gay becoming PM is as difficult as it has ever been.
Even though most kings of England and Scotland seem to have been.

TheFatBigot said...

I struggle with the concept that Mr Mandleson did nothing wrong in the Hinduja affair. It seems to me hid two things wrong, both of which were serious errors of judgment for a member of the Cabinet.

First, he telephoned a Home Office minister with responsibility for immigration and said something about Hinduja's application. It matters not what he said, he should not have made the call under any circumstances.

Secondly, when the "ahem" hit the fan he denied having made the call. That was, I would suggest, rather more than a mere error of judgment.