Saturday, September 12, 2009

No change in the weather for Labour

I'm finally back from my late-summer break so without further ado here's today's Journal column rounding up the events of the past week and some of those which occurred while I was away.

Sometimes, the end of the summer holidays and the start of the new political season in the autumn can herald a change in the weather – in the political as well as the meteorological sense.

Governments or parties which have been going through a bout of unpopularity often come back rejuvenated, as people forget why they were unpopular in the first place.

But such is the trough of unpopularity in which Gordon Brown’s government has been mired for so long that this was never likely to be one of those kinds of Septembers.

Indeed, with the hugely damaging controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber still continuing to rumble on, Mr Brown’s position has, if anything, worsened over the course of the summer break.

The primary complaint against the Prime Minister’s handling of the issue is not so much whether he did or did not agree to exchange Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi as part of a new trade deal with Libya, although that may very well have been the case.

Rather, it has been his reluctance to speak out about an issue of such fundamental importance, when contrasted with his eagerness to comment on, say, the demise of Jade Goody or the fortunes of the England football team.

Mr Brown’s attempts to palm off all responsibility for the decision onto the SNP-led Scottish government have been exposed for exactly what they were – an abdication of leadership.

His close ally Ed Balls’ declaration on BBC Radio this week that “no-one in the government” had wanted to see al-Megrahi released has only further added to the impression of a government trying to face all ways at once.

Neither has it been a good summer for the government in terms of its handling of the conflict in Afghanistan, with the eight-year political consensus over the war visibly starting to fray.

Ministers have been accused both of failing to provide adequate resources for British troops on the ground, and of conducting a smear campaign against Army chiefs who dared to point this out.

Whoever was behind the negative briefings – and Veterans Minister and Durham North MP Kevan Jones has denied claims that it was him – the perpetrators demonstrated spectacularly poor political judgment.

People are not fundamentally interested in whether the new Army chief’s daughter is a Tory activist, or how much his predecessor claimed on expenses. They want to know whether our boys in Helmand are getting the tools they need to do the job.

The government’s dismal performance over the summer – its ratings only went up when Mr Brown was on holiday – contrasts sharply with that of David Cameron’s Tories in the first week back.

There was nothing particularly sophisticated or even original about Mr Cameron’s speech on Tuesday in which he pledged to cut back on MPs’ perks including subsidised food and booze. Indeed some might even see it as cheap populism.

But what it did show once again is that Mr Cameron remains far more in tune with the public mood over MPs’ expenses than the government has been.

Likewise, his decision to demote Shadow Commons Leader Alan Duncan was a long overdue punishment for a politician who has continually demonstrated that he simply does not ‘get’ what the public are angry about.

Mr Cameron is now riding the wave of the “anti politics” vote that, in former leader Charles Kennedy’s day, was once the preserve of the Liberal Democrats.

As well as ending the gravy-train which entitles MPs to the cheapest beer to be found anywhere in London, his speech this week pledged a cut in their numbers, the abolition of the unelected regional assemblies, and fresh curbs on quango spending.

The amount of money saved – about £120m a year – is but a pinprick compared with the £175bn budget deficit facing the country – but that’s not really the point.

No, what matters is that Mr Cameron is being seen to take a lead in reforming what the public now views as a corrupt political system - something Mr Brown has continually failed to do.

So with the Tories looking increasingly like a government-in-waiting, what, if anything, can Labour do to fight back?

Post-Megrahi, a collective despair appears once more to have gripped the party, with many MPs and activists resigned to election defeat next year, yet seemingly unable to conceive of any course of action which could avert that.

The backbencher Jon Cruddas summed up the party’s predicament in a speech to the think-tank Compass this week in which he argued that the government no longer knows what it stands for.

“There are plenty of initiatives and announcements but no sense of animating purpose, no compelling case for re-election,” he said.

One blogger this week posed the question whether another coup attempt against Mr Brown this autumn was possible in view of the Blairite plotters’ failure to unseat him last May.

Well, against the current backdrop, it doesn’t only seem possible, it seems inevitable.

The stark reality of the situation is that there is currently as much chance of the public giving Mr Brown another five years in Number 10 as Colonel Gadaffi putting Mr al-Megrahi on a one-way flight back to Scotland.

In other words, the summer break has come and gone – and for the Prime Minister, absolutely nothing has changed.

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The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Welcome back Paul, hope you had a good holiday.

Anonymous said...

'Well, against the current backdrop, it doesn’t only seem possible, it seems inevitable.'

With Brown Labour gets 150 MP's next year,with postman pat then 200 MP's is a possibilty.
However,the nightmare scenario is that with a full blown leadership election,Harperson gets elected and then 150 MP's next year look svery optimistic.For that reason Brown is probably safe.

Angry voter