Saturday, February 28, 2009

The answer's in the Post, Gordon

Wednesday's suspension of hostilities at PMQs showed Brown and Cameron in a good light - but with the Royal Mail row threatening the mother of all Labour rebellions, politics will soon be back to normal. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the course of recent years, it is fair to say that the weekly gladiatorial joust that is Prime Minister’s Questions has not always shown the British system of government at its best.

Although seen as vital for party morale, the exchanges between the two main party leaders frequently generate more heat than light while more often than not leaving the public cold.

The clashes between Gordon Brown and David Cameron over the past 18 months have proved no exception to this general rule.

In truth they have been less about policy and more about psychology – a series of confrontations in which the opposition leader has sought to get under a notoriously prickly Prime Minister’s thin skin.

But it is this evident personal edge to the Brown – Cameron rivalry which made the suspension of hostilities in the Commons Chamber on Wednesday of this week all the more remarkable.

For the best part of two years, they have kept their relations at a purely perfunctory level, avoiding the customary courtesies that take place between a Prime Minister and an opposition leader.

Yet on Wednesday, the two men set aside their personal and political differences as they found themselves united by the common bond of grief they share.

The death of Mr Cameron’s six-year-old son Ivan, seven years after the loss of Mr Brown’s own first child, reminded both them and us that there is more to life than politics.

The personal is of course political, and there can be no doubting the part that their respective private traumas have played in forming the political outlooks of the two men.

Mr Brown has spoken openly in the past of how his experiences of the NHS after losing an eye in a rugby injury as a teenager helped shape his politics from an early age.

More recently Mr Cameron too has made clear the important part he believes the health service plays in the life of the nation - based on the significant part it has played in his own life.

Much of what the Tory leader does in politics is pure positioning, but not this. This comes genuinely from the heart.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether this week’s events will lead to any lasting thaw in the frosty atmosphere between the two party leaders.

Will they start to treat eachother with greater respect, now that each of them knows the other has shared their deepest personal tragedy?

I suspect the public would probably welcome that, but a year out from a general election, it’s probably not going to happen.

Mr Cameron may well now view Mr Brown in a more sympathetic light, but that won’t stop him trying to get the Prime Minister to admit that the recession was his fault.

What would the two men have talked about this week, had Wednesday’s clash gone ahead as normal?

Well, former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin’s £650,000-a-year pension certainly. It is becoming increasingly clear that the government may have missed a trick here.

But probably the big issue of the week would have been the government’s plans to sell off a 30pc stake in the Royal Mail.

Mr Cameron’s objective in this would have been clear: to drive a wedge between Mr Brown and the growing army of Labour backbenchers who are bitterly opposed to the plan.

There are broadly speaking three points of view in the Commons on the future of the Royal Mail. One is that it should be privatised – the view that is held by almost all Conservative and most Liberal Democrat MPs.

Another is that it should remain entirely in the public sector – the view held by 130 backbench Labour MPs who are determined to thwart the proposed legislation.

In this context, the government’s “third way” of part-privatisation might seem like an acceptable compromise – but it is hard to find anyone who believes in it outside the government.

As the rebel former minister Peter Hain has pointed out this week, it is not easy to see where a parliamentary majority for any of these positions currently lies.

The Commons arithmetic is such that if even a third of the 130 Labour rebels vote against the plans when they come before the Commons in June, Mr Brown will have to rely on the votes of Tory MPs to get them through.

Which essentially means that, on this issue at least, Mr Cameron has the Prime Minister by the short and curlies.

An added danger for Mr Brown is the fact that not everyone in his government – notably deputy leader Harriet Harman – appears to be wholeheartedly behind the proposed sell-off.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, like banking bonuses, this is yet another issue on which Mr Brown’s would-be successors are carefully positioning themselves.

For all these reasons, I expect Mr Cameron to try to keep this issue uppermost on the agenda when he returns from compassionate leave the week after next and Prime Minister’s Questions returns to its familiar format.

He knows that Mr Brown can ill-afford to fall out with his party at this point in his troubled premiership and that a rebellion of the magnitude of 130 MPs could prove terminal.

Last week I posed the question whether the government can carry on much longer in an atmosphere where Labour MPs were indulging in ever more open speculation about the succession as the Prime Minister’s authority steadily drained away.

For Mr Brown, the answer to that could be in the Post.

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