Saturday, April 05, 2008

Local elections are make-or-break for Brown

My weekly column in today's Newcastle Journal will be the last for a couple of weeks, so with the local elections coming up it seemed a good opportunity for a general overview of the current political situation.

Just before Christmas, Skipper said that Gordon Brown had at best six months "to prevent burnt out incompetence and drift becoming the default perception of his government." I have seen no better description of the Prime Minister's current predicament and I acknowledge my debt to him in helping me formulate this week's piece.

Of course, those six months are now nearly up, and the local election campaign really provides Gordon with his last opportunity to launch a fightback before that "default perception" becomes fixed in the public's mind.

Here's the column in full.


There was a time, shortly after Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister last July, when Thursday May 1 2008 could have seemed a plausible date for the next General Election.

Mr Brown will by then have been in power for nearly a year – a milestone which at one time might have looked like a logical point at which to try for a fresh mandate.

Of course, the Prime Minister famously decided against an early election last autumn and in so doing effectively ruled out this spring as an option too.

If he harboured any lingering doubts as to whether he should perhaps have left the door slightly ajar, what has happened to the economy since will surely have dispelled them.

But we are, nevertheless, still going to have a significant electoral contest next month, namely the local elections in England and Wales.

In the North-East, it will mean contests in all the big metropolitan councils as well as in the counties of Durham and Northumberland which become unitary authorities next May.

The London Mayoralty is also up for grabs, with Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone facing a determined challenge from Tory Boris Johnson.

Taken together, it will constitute the first big national test of public opinion since Mr Brown took over – and the omens for the government currently look pretty depressing.

After last year’s Awful Autumn in which Mr Brown’s administration staggered from disaster to disaster, the political situation appeared to have stabilised in the early months of this year.

The Prime Minister recruited a new team of advisers at No 10, and it began to look as though they had started to turn things around.

But all that seemed to change with last month’s Budget which, while it may well come to be viewed in a better light, is clearly failing to impress the public at the present time.

The result is that opinion polls over recent weeks have shown David Cameron’s Conservatives with leads of up to 13 points, putting him for the first time in potential landslide territory.

Inevitably given the characters involved, the most national media attention in the run up to next month’s polls will be focused on the Livingstone-Johnson prizefight in the capital.

The Tory challenger currently appears poised for a sensational victory and, not for the first time, Mr Brown finds himself faced with a difficulty of his predecessor’s making.

Tony Blair was desperate to get Ken back in the Labour tent in 2004 to give the party a morale-boosting success in the run-up to the 2005 General Election.

Mr Brown was opposed to it then, and with Mr Livingstone now seemingly facing what would be a morale-shattering defeat for Labour, he must be wishing he had got his way

But while there is no doubt that the loss of London would constitute a major blow to the government, that would not be the worst of it if Labour also suffers a rout across the rest of the country.

Until recently, Labour has been able to point to the fact that while its own ratings were in the doldrums, there had been no corresponding outpouring of enthusiasm for the Tories. I have made the same point myself in this column

But once the Tories start winning actual votes, actual seats and actual councils, it will become much harder to make this claim.

The big danger for Mr Brown from these elections is that he ends up looking like a certain loser while Mr Cameron starts to take on the aura of a surefire winner – just as Mr Blair did in the mid-1990s.

Already, the Labour troops are growing restless. This week saw the remarkable spectacle of the sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, criticising a key aspect of the Budget – the rise in alcohol duties.

Another minister, Ivan Lewis, laid into Mr Brown last weekend, arguing that the government is out of touch with ordinary Labour voters.

Meanwhile several former ministers and one-time loyalists have signed a Commons motion opposing the forthcoming abolition of the 10p starting rate of tax, announced by Mr Brown himself in last year’s Budget.

And if that were not enough, former Home Secretary Charles Clarke has helpfully produced a “doomsday list” of Labour-held southern seats he says are at risk unless the Prime Minister can stop the rot.

The respected commentator Peter Riddell said this week: “The malaise is real and it is widespread. The Brown Government is in deep trouble.

“The sense that something is seriously wrong has spread, ominously, to Labour MPs, not just disgruntled ex-ministers but normal loyalists.”

The worry for Mr Brown is that a heavy series of Labour defeats on May 1 could cause these rumblings of discontent to escalate into a full-scale civil war.

A spate of Tory victories in the South and Midlands will inevitably cause some Labour MPs in marginal seats to question whether it’s their necks on the block – or the Prime Minister’s.

After the serial catastrophes of last autumn, it was always the case that the first six months of this year would be make-or-break for Mr Brown’s premiership.

We waited for Mr Brown to set out his “vision,” but it never happened. We waited for him to demonstrate that his government had some higher purpose than simply staying in power, but that never really happened either.

As a result, the default perception of his administration has become one of burnt-out incompetence and drift leading inevitably towards terminal decline and defeat.

If that perception is not to become permanently fixed in the public’s mind, the fightback really must start here.

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Anonymous said...

The loss of the 10% tax band will most certainly have an affect on voting. As a recently retired woman, I will be paying an additional £216 per year on a v ery low income. I will receive £100 fuel allowance which will not meet increased fuel costs. Council tax, energy, water and food prices have all soared so those on lower incomes will find the removal of this tax band difficult. Forgot to say - imposed by a Labour Government.

The Commons motion related to the 10% band has been withdrawn - this PM has been successful in controlling alternate views. I understand the whip being withdrawn was threatened to those MPS who wished for referendum over the Lisbon Treaty. Now this EDM being removed. What next?

Sadly, as a lifelong Labour Party supporter I will not vote at any forthcoming elections ( a non-voter for the first time) until the current leader is replaced. Anyone who introduces such an unfair tax burden on those with limited income does not deserve my vote. Part time staff who are not entitled to tax credits, those between aged 60-65, low paid single people will all be penalised by this policy.

The PM has got the job he has always wanted. He has been disloyal and a most difficult colleague since 1997
and every personality trait that other Ministers who worked with him during the period have stated has been confirmed. Noone will persuade me that he was not complicit in the plot to oust Tony Blair. I think he is a ghastly personality and a poor leader despite his many years preparing for the job. His new team may improve his performances, he will never be a leader that I can be proud off in representing this country.

In despair - Jane

MorrisOx said...

As ever, an astute summary, Paul, and painfully reinforced by Jane's comment above.

But Brown is the father of his own demise, both in character and in policy. Because of his deep-seated resentment of Tony Blair, it is he who tried to control the country and claim the glory by keeping an iron grip on department spending and shutting the prime Minister out. His desire to claim the glory saw him engage in a doomed combination of high spending and high deficits. And when an economic cycle ended - as it was surely doing even before the credit crunch made it worse - his claim to be the prudent steward who had finally bested boom and bust was exposed as empty rhetoric.

I do feel sorry for brown in some ways, and while I'm not blind to the many mistakes of Blair it is difficult not to conclude that of the two people who were trying to run the country between 1997-2007 he had the temperament best-suited to the job.

What disturbs me most now is the almost theocratic debate about Labour's future direction, with think-tanks and policy groups out-pseuding each other in a race to find the big idea that 're-connects with ordinary people'.

They could try talking to them, for starters. Ministers have never seemed more distant, with Ruth Kelly surrounded by a bizarre coterie of advisors who never let people near her, and Caroline Flint effectively making a major Parliamentary policy announcement in a series of telephone calls to interested MPs. What on earth is going on?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, Paul, on both that sort of ministerial conduct and the sheer futility of Labour's internal policy debate.

It is surely not that complicated. Brown made a good start by presenting himself as the basic, competent man who was seen doing nothing more than taking control of situations and getting on with business.

He then made on big, public mistake. And to all intents and purposes he hasn't been seen since.

James Higham said...

The London Mayoralty is also up for grabs, with Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone facing a determined challenge from Tory Boris Johnson.

Does Boris have enough local support do you thnk?

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)