Gordon Brown's latest relaunch this week met with a preditably underwhelming reception from the public. Here's this week's Journal column.
Sometimes in politics, governments and Prime Ministers find themselves in a position where, whatever they do or don’t do, they are effectively in a no-win situation.
If they stick to their guns and attempt to drive through their programme in the teeth of opposition, they are criticised for being inflexible, arrogant and authoritarian.
But if, on the other hand, they try to demonstrate that they are “listening” to their critics by changing their mind on some key issue, they are lambasted for having “lost authority.”
It is a conundrum that goes to the heart of all political debate. Does the public actually want a government that “listens,” or does it merely want one that shows “strong leadership?”
Well, the answer is that it probably wants both, but history shows that while an ability to listen is all very well, the foremost requirement of any government is the ability to lead.
A government which proves, early on its lifetime, that is capable of “strong leadership” is much more able to show flexibility later on without the risk of damaging its authority.
By contrast, governments which fail to establish such a reputation in the first place tend to find that subsequent attempts to “listen” are invariably interpreted as further evidence of weakness.
In such a position does Gordon Brown’s administration find itself at the moment, in a week which saw both an attempt to show leadership in the shape of the draft Queen’s Speech, and a series of U-turns which, so ministers claim, show they are “listening.”
First, then, the attempted show of leadership. For me, the most interesting thing about Mr Brown’s latest “relaunch” on Monday was the slogan – “Building Britain’s Future.”
This is the nearest thing Mr Brown has had to a “Big Idea” in the whole of his two years at No 10 – but the amazing thing is that it has taken him so long to get there.
“Building the future” has been being talked about as a possible leitmotif for the Brown premiership for at least 18 months, – not least in this column where it was first mooted back in December 2007.
Okay, so it’s not the kind of soaring vision his predecessor might have come up with, but it’s as good a slogan as any for a Prime Minister who prides himself on his work ethic and sense of public service.
If “building” was the theme of Monday’s package, housing was the obvious focus, with a £2.1bn pledge to fund 110,000 affordable homes to rent or buy over the next two years.
But Mr Brown soon ran intro trouble with the promise to change council house allocation rules to allow councils to give preference to local residents.
Not only might this be illegal under EU equality laws, it will invariably be seen as a response to the growth of the British National Party in some traditional Labour areas.
As such, it risks having the same negative impact on the Prime Minister’s credibility as his infamous “British jobs for British workers” soundbite at last year’s Labour conference.
The other big problem with Mr Brown’s housing plans, in common with other pledges made in Monday’s Commons statement, was of course the price tag.
In the light of the massive debt burden already facing the British economy, it was hard not to listen to some of the Prime Minister’s announcements without a growing sense of incredulity.
It was a bit like Mr Brown’s Budgets and spending reviews of old, in the days when he was able to chuck a few billion here and a few billion there with seemingly gay abandon.
Part of Mr Brown’s problem is that he is still wedded to his old mantra of “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” – but most people now believe there will be cuts whoever wins the next election.
What of the U-turns? Should they be seen as evidence of a “listening” government, as Justice Secretary Jack Straw claimed on Thursday, or do they in fact show that it is no longer in control of events?
Well, the move to water-down the national ID card scheme has been predicted ever since Alan Johnson went to the Home Office in the recent reshuffle. If he ever does manage to become Prime Minister, it will almost certainly be scrapped altogether.
Likewise, the decision to abandon the proposed part-privatisation of the Royal Mail was forced on the Prime Minister by his backbenchers’ refusal to countenance the plan.
The measure was doomed once it became clear that Mr Brown would have to rely on Tory votes to get it through the Commons, however much Business Secretary Lord Mandelson may have fought to save it.
What this all demonstrates is that the overarching narrative of the Brown government isn’t “building,” it’s something else that begins with b – blundering from one crisis to the next.
And there comes a point where a government has blundered from so many crises to the next that everything it does starts to be seen in this light.
Sadly for Mr Brown, this point in the lifetime of his administration was reached a very long time ago.
Which is why this latest attempt at a relaunch is likely to be about as successful as the last.