Saturday, March 13, 2010

Blame, or Gratitude?

Ever since it first surfaced during the 1992 US presidential campaign, the claim that all elections are essentially about “the economy, stupid” has become something of a political cliché.

Like most clichés though, this one contains more than a grain of truth.

MPs expenses, the Iraq Inquiry, antisocial behaviour, the personalities of the party leaders – all will doubtless play a part in helping to shape the forthcoming election battle.

But when all is said and done, it is the state of the British economy which will be uppermost in most peoples’ minds when, as now seems certain, they come to cast their votes on 6 May.

One of the many reasons for this is that there is an unusual degree of unanimity between the two main parties that it should be so.

It is more often the case in politics that the two parties will seek to push different issues to the fore – for instance the health service in Labour’s case, law and order and defence in the case of the Tories.

In this election, though, both the two main parties are convinced that focusing on the economy is in their electoral interests, even though they can’t both be right about this.

It is hardly surprising that, in the wake of the worst recession since the 1930s, the Tories see Labour’s economic management as its weakest spot. What is more so is that Prime Minister Gordon Brown still believes it is his strongest suit.

That much was clear from the speech Mr Brown delivered on Thursday in which he appeared to invoke Churchillian rhetoric to describe his battle to keep the economy afloat over the past couple of years.

Mr Brown said the worst was now over, but the recovery remained fragile and that withdrawing the support he put in place in 2008 would drive the economy back into recession.

He was once again driving home what will be his central campaign message, that the recovery is not safe in the Tories’ hands.

And once again he declared “I will not let you down” – just as he did on the steps of Number 10 the day he took over as Prime Minister, in what already seems the faraway summer of 2007.

Of course, Mr Brown is enough of an historian to know that the British electorate does not usually see general elections as an opportunity to say “thank you.”

Having saved Britain from its biggest external threat since 1066, Churchill famously lost the 1945 election, largely because the public was motivated more by a desire for change than by a desire to express its gratitude.

The Tories’ response to the Prime Minister’s speech was predictable. “The biggest threat to the recovery is five more years of him,” said Shadow Chancellor George Osborne.

Five more years of Gordon Brown. We heard that at the Conservatives’ Spring conference the weekend before last, and we’ll be hearing it a lot more from Tory lips over the coming weeks.

The problem facing Mr Brown, as ever, is that the economy is a double-edged sword for him.

There is a broad consensus that he has been at his best in tackling the economic crisis over the past two years. But there is also a consensus that, during his time as Chancellor, he helped create the conditions which allowed the recession to occur.

So what it boils down to is this. Will the voters give Mr Brown the credit for leading Britain out of the recession, or will they punish him for failing to prevent it in the first place?

On the answer to that question, more than anything else, the result of the 2010 general election will rest.

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1 comment:

Ted Foan said...

If there is any justice, Paul, the electorate will now see Labour for what it is (and has always been) and kick it out of power for a long time. But I'm not sure that enough people yet realise what long-term damage has been done.