Saturday, October 18, 2008

Normal politics returns

Brown to call snap election? Cameron to be replaced by Ken Clarke? Political pundits should stop getting carried away by the idea of a "Brown Renaissance," I argue in my Journal column today.

In last week's column, I wrote that it was unclear whether we are currently living in a period where "normal politics" has gone into abeyance, or whether the political landscape has undergone a permanent change.

In the sense that we don't yet know the extent to which the post-Thatcher free market consensus has been changed by the events of the past few weeks - and won't know for some time - that still holds true.

But in another respect, it was pretty clear that "normal politics" had indeed been temporarily put on hold, as the political establishment rallied round Gordon Brown at the height of the banking crisis.

Briefly, we saw the same sort of bipartisanship that was seen, say, in the wake of 9/11, when the then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was forced to tear-up his party conference speech and say nice things about Tony Blair instead.

For a fortnight or so, the current Tory leader David Cameron and his Shadow Chancellor George Osborne found themselves in a similar position.

It is often said that the job of an opposition is to oppose, but this is too simplistic. The truth is that sometimes, the job of the opposition is, in fact, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government.

This week, however, "normal politics" in the sense of the battle between the two main parties returned with a vengeance.

Mr Cameron's speech yesterday, in which he accused Mr Brown of a "complete and utter failure" in economic policy, gave us a flavour of the argument that will rage between now and whenever the next general election finally comes.

"Over the past decade, we have seen a total breakdown of economic responsibility," he told an audience in the City of London.

"We need change to mend our broken economy. This lot cannot do it - not least because they cannot own up to any mistakes.

Mr Cameron said that some people thought his party's decision to support the banking rescue plan meant it now "subscribed to the government's entire economic policy and doctrine."

But he added: "Let me make it crystal clear - we do not. And the complete and utter failure of their economic record has never been more clear to see."

All of this puts in stark perspective the talk of the "Brown renaissance" which has become widespread over the past fortnight or so.

Yes, the Prime Minister has certainly bought himself some breathing space, but talk of a complete turnaround in his political fortunes is still way too premature.

Gossip and rumour are part and parcel of political life, but some of what has appeared on political blogs and even in some national newspapers over the past few days has taken fantastical speculation to new heights of absurdity.

There was talk, for instance, that Mr Brown would hold a snap general election to cash-in on his new-found "popularity" in the wake of the crisis - as if he would even go near the idea after getting his fingers so badly burned last time.

One rumour even had it that backbench Tory MPs have been so angered by Mr Cameron's failure to land a killer blow on Mr Brown over the crisis they planned to replace him with Ken Clarke.

I think that David Davis - freshly vindicated by the collapse of the government's plans for 42-day detention - would have something to say about that, but no matter.

The truth is Mr Cameron is not going to be overthrown this autumn any more than Mr Brown is going to hold an autumn election.

After yesterday, he must know that had he been foolish enough to call one, the whole country would by now have been plastered with posters bearing his picture and the words "no return to boom and bust."

The Prime Minister's only hope is still to play it long and hope that by May 2010, he can actually justifiably claim to have "fixed" the crisis.

Even then, it may still not be enough to secure him another term in 10 Downing Street.

At the risk of repeating what I said a week ago, the prevailing public sentiment towards him may still be a case of "we want you to sort out this mess - and then we want you to go."

The electorate can be an unsentimental lot, and as Winston Churchill found in 1945, saving the country from catastrophe is no guarantee of a further term in power.

If anything is going to do for Mr Brown, it is not an essentially arcane difficulty over whether or not banks will lend to eachother, it is what is happening in what has been dubbed the "real" economy.

People in the North-East know all about that. To paraphrase the old saying about America and Europe, the region is usually the first to catch a cold whenever London sneezes.

It was amusing to hear BBC political editor Nick Robinson say this week that unemployment had not been an issue in British politics for 15 years. He has clearly not spent much of that time in the North.

It is in fact ten years ago this month that the then Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George, told me that lost North jobs were an "acceptable" price to pay to curb inflation in the South, following a spate of factory closures in the region.

Maybe the region's economy is more resilient these days, but if history is anything to go by, the North-East is once again likely to be in the eye of the economic storm.

The region's construction industry has already been badly hit by the crisis, but that is surely just the start.

I suppose those who are set to lose their jobs in the forthcoming months could always go and lag roofs for a living, as the Prime Minister helpfully appeared to suggest this week.

But as Mr Cameron might say, if he had actually fixed the roof while the sun was shining, they wouldn't need to.

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Diablo said...

Excellent, sensible article Paul. You certainly do have the ability to muster a very balanced analysis without veering off in politcal hyperbole. Thanks.

MorrisOx said...

One fact makes me relatively optimistic about recession. That is that, unlike the early 1980s, there are no large scale industries with fundamental structural weaknesses likely to be exposed by recession.

Unfortunately, he fact that the last serious recession was 25 years ago make me pessimistic. It will seem worse than it really is simply because so many people in decision-making positions - in industry and in the media - haven't got the grey-haired experience that tells them to put this into perspective.

In other worse it will seem bad because they've known only good.

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James Higham said...

North West ain't that much better either just now.

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