Saturday, February 21, 2009

Brown's authority is draining away

Could this week's "mini silly season" of Labour leadership stories turn into a full-blown crisis for Gordon Brown? Absolutely. Here's today's Journal column.

And so it begins again. From the high watermark of Brown Bounce II before Christmas, when it looked certain that Gordon Brown would lead the Labour Party into the next General Election, the Prime Minister is once again beset by rumours of his political demise.

Okay, so it’s moreorless exactly what I said would happen at the start of the year, but to be perfectly honest with you, it wasn’t rocket science.

Once the recession really started kicking in, it was never likely that the Prime Minister on whose watch it occurred would somehow manage to escape the blame for the whole crisis.

It was even less likely when that Prime Minister is Mr Brown, the man who claimed to have abolished boom and bust and to have presided over an economic miracle during his 11 long years as the self-styled Guardian of the People’s Money.

Mr Brown’s default response to the downturn thus far has been to blame it on global economic forces way beyond his or any of his ministers’ control.

For a while, the public seemed prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. But over recent weeks, the excuse has become increasingly threadbare as the failure of the government’s system of financial regulation has become more and more apparent.

Last week it was revealed that former HBOS executive Sir James Crosby, who went on to become deputy head of the financial services authority and a key Brown adviser, had sacked a whistleblower who had tried to warn the bank about excessive risk-taking.

While it did not constitute a “smoking gun” linking Mr Brown directly to the collapse of the bank, it added to a growing public feeling that he was part of the problem – and hence cannot be part of the solution.

When the former bosses of HBOS and other leading bankers appeared before the Treasury Select Committee ten days ago, they practically fell over themselves to apologise for effectively causing the banking crisis.

But there has, of course, been no such apology from Mr Brown, and nor is there likely to be.

As Shadow Chancellor George Osborne put it with lethal precision this week, the Prime Minister “is still living in his Walter Mitty world where his system of banking regulation didn't fail, where boom-and-bust had been abolished and where Britain is best placed to withstand the recession.”

It may be Punch and Judy politics, but it’s also a charge that is increasingly resonating with the voters.

The politics of the situation are being driven, as ever, by the polls, with the Tory lead once more stretching towards the 20-point mark.

It is important to remember that even at the height of Brown Bounce II, the polls never had Labour in front, but the pre-Christmas deficit of around 5-6pc was of such a magnitude as can often be clawed back during an election campaign.

It gave the party hope that they could at least get to the starting-line in 2010 with a fighting chance of victory, but as the Tory lead has grown over recent weeks that hope has turned steadily to despair.

As I wrote three weeks back, it was only a matter of time in those circumstances before the plotting to replace Mr Brown began again, and sure enough, this week it has.

At the start of the week, the main beneficiary of this renewed speculation around Mr Brown’s future appeared to be the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson.

"The Prime Minister's mistakes are catching up with him. Only Johnson can hold back the Tories,” cried John Rentoul, in the Independent

The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley wrote: "If Brown stepped aside and was replaced by, say, Alan Johnson, then Labour might do better…..the one quality Johnson does have is authenticity - and that is what is needed right now.”

And the Telegraph’s Matthew d’Ancona weighed in from the Tory perspective with: "Alan Johnson is the figure who bothers the Cameroons most."

Such a remarkable degree of unanimity from the commentariat suggested some kind of spinning operation on Mr Johnson’s behalf, but by the end of the week, other names had entered the frame.

Depending on which paper you read, deputy leader Harriet Harman and Children’s Secretary Ed Balls were either forming a leadership “dream ticket” or alternatively locked in a deadly briefing war against eachother.

The Balls camp was said to have fingered Ms Harman over a suggestion – floated in Ms Ashley’s column – that Mr Brown could be offered some grand international post to enable him to quit the UK stage with dignity.

Meanwhile Mrs Balls – Treasury minister Yvette Cooper – was named by London’s Evening Standard as a potential “Stop Harriet” candidate, although her husband’s response to this idea went sadly unreported.

Is this all just froth of the kind the national political media excel in? Well, up to a point.

But take it from me as someone who has been there, Westminster journalists don’t simply sit there making this sort of stuff up. There is always some grain of truth, however small, in what they are writing.

What I suspect is happening at the moment is that minsters are becoming increasingly indiscreet about what they say to journalists, and that some of that is finding its way into the news pages.

What that shows in turn is that the Prime Minister’s authority is steadily collapsing as Labour MPs indulge in ever more open speculation about what will happen when he goes.

Can the government go on like this? Not really, and certainly not for another 15 months up to a May 2010 election.

Mr Brown is in dire need of economic good news, but that currently seems very far away and, in any case, whenever good news of this nature occurs the government has a tendency to over-claim for it.

Until very recently, there was a settled will in the Labour Party that, for good or ill, the party was stuck with Mr Brown until the election, and that it had better knuckle down and make the best of it.

My instinct tells me this mood is changing, and that the party may be about to experience a spring awakening. Watch this space.

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Toque said...

Maybe it's just me, but doesn't everyone despise Ed Balls and Harriet Harman?

It would have to be Alan Johnson to even stand a chance of recovery in the polls.

But he'd have a very short space of time to do it in. They'd surely have to call a General Election if they changed leaders again. We were told that Blair would be seeing out this parliament.

Who will be the stalking horse, or the person who does a Geoffrey Howe? Cruddas isn't well known enough, or influential enough. Diane Abbot and Frank Field are well known but not particularly influential. David Miliband doesn't have the balls, but may get someone else to act as Brutus.

Straw, Darling, Alexander and Smith are all too close to Brown to benefit personally from his assassination. Blairites Hutton and Milburn are a possibility, but would anyone care?

Frankly they all yes men or yesterday's men. Not much to choose from.

I'd go for Charles Clarke or Peter Mandleson, or even Blunket. They'll know that there's nothing to lose now.

Ted Foan said...

All that Toque says but I would like to add my congratulations on a very article, Paul. For a change, I can't fault your analysis or conclusions!

Ted Foan said...

"... for a very good article.." that should have read!

Events dear boy, events said...

Hmmm. I can't see Brown going, it is not in his DNA to give up.

I have argued on my blog that the Labour party rules are too cumbersome for a smooth transition, and two unelected PM's in one parliament is not sustainable.

I will link to your blog. Hope you will link to mine

The Creator said...

If Brown's hopes of a spring/early summer election based on a boost provided by the G20 meeting and a give-away budget are dashed – as they surely will be – then he will go off his own volition in the autumn for the simple reason he will then face the prospect of certain defeat in 2010. And that would be a humiliation he could not bear. Brown doesn't 'do' elections he can't be certain of winning – which is another way of saying 'of rigging'.

If you don't contest an election, you can't lose it. Worked for him in 1994, after all.

angry voter said...

Don't believe the electorate will accept another unelected Prime Minister being dumped on it.

Anonymous said...

Not just 1994, but also the Labour Party selection contest for the 1978 Hamilton South by-election. There was a chance he would lose out to George Robertson (the eventual winner, candidate and MP) so he didn't put his hat in the ring.

Bryan McGrath said...

The parliamentary Labour party is a collective rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.

Much to my disgust Brown will not call an election at the same time as the Euros (although that would be better for Labour finances i.e. piggy back General Election on "Euros" money). Noses remain firmly in the trough for the additional 11 months of income and pension "entitlement".

My "thirty years of tory scum" jibe is going to go to waste. How about "Nulab new cockup" for 2010.

Still assuming the parliamentary Labour party is halved from 350 down to 175, that leaves Diane Abbott covering at the Foreign Office, want a lauf

angry voter said...

Agree Bryan, the New Labour leeches are going to have their snouts glued to the trough until they have sucked the last possible taxpayers money.
So march 2010 it will be,then we will get a break for a decade or so,longer if Harperson takes over.