Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review of the Year 2008

It's that time of the year again. Here's my look back at an extraordinary political year from today's Newcastle Journal.

The year 2008 will be remembered as the year that defied the normal laws of political gravity. While the British economy came crashing down, the reputation of Gordon Brown’s government somehow went up and up.

This time last year, the Prime Minister looked down and almost out, likely to go down in history as the short-lived leader of a fag-end administration that looked long past its sell-by date.

It was to get worse before it got better. A succession of dire by-election performances coupled with the loss of the London Mayoralty to Boris Johnson and the Scottish Parliament to the SNP led to a summer of plotting and serious talk of a leadership coup.

But then, in one of the most bizarre and unexpected twists of political fate in recent times, the credit crunch and the accompanying economic downturn rode to Mr Brown’s rescue, enabling him to play to his strengths as a “serious man for serious times.”

Actually, when the Prime Minister used those words, he was talking about someone else – his old friend Peter Mandelson. But more of him later.

At the start of the year, though, Mr Brown seemed less of a serious man for serious times than a political figure of fun, ruthlessly characterised by the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable as having undergone a transformation “from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

He had still, at that stage, not recovered from the debacle of the election-that-never-was in the autumn of 2007 and the succession of rows over Labour funding that followed.

One of those rows claimed a ministerial scalp early in the new year in the shape of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain, though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing over the matter of his deputy leadership election expenses claims.

The first half of the year was dominated by the run-up to the May elections – notably Ken Livingstone’s battle for a third term as Mayor of London against Mr Johnson’s challenge.

But any hopes Mr Brown might have had of using those elections as a springboard from which to relaunch his flagging premiership were sunk by a chicken coming home to roost in the form of the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

When he had announced this in his final Budget as Chancellor the year before, there had been scarcely a murmur of opposition from either the Labour or Conservative benches.

Not so this year. When Labour MPs realised that the tax change would hit their own people the hardest, it sparked a backbench revolt that forced Mr Brown into a humiliating climbdown.

But the inevitable loss of London, Scotland and hundreds of council seats nationwide was not the worst of it. Far more damaging was the disastrous sequence of by-election losses that saw some of Labour’s safest majorities overturned.

It had begun in Crewe and Nantwich where Tamsin Dunwoody’s attempt to inherit her late mother Gywneth’s Commons seat drowned under a tidal wave of anger over the 10p tax rate.

It continued in Mr Johnson’s old seat of Henley as Labour lost its deposit and slumped to fifth place behind the British National Party and the Greens.

And it finally culminated in Glasgow East, with Labour’s hitherto third-safest seat in Scotland disappearing to the Scottish National Party on a 22pc swing.

Many concluded that Mr Brown’s authority and standing with the public was now so badly shredded as to be beyond recovery. Talk of a leadership challenge began to grow.

Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband had long been regarded as the great hope of the party’s Blairite wing. Now he made his first, tentative moves.

In a national newspaper article which caused shockwaves throughout Westminster, he set out a possible prospectus for a Labour fourth term with not a single mention of Mr Brown.

Shortly afterwards MPs went off on their holidays. Mobile phones buzzed between Italian villas as, somehow, the Labour Party tried to come to a collective judgement about what to do with its beleaguered PM.

But there was no September coup. In its wisdom, the party decided it would give Mr Brown one last chance to turn things around at Labour’s autumn conference.

It was too much for four junior members of the government - Siobhan McDonough, Joan Ryan, Barry Gardiner and David Cairns – who all resigned in frustration at the cabinet’s refusal to move against the Prime Minister.

It could hardly have been a worse preparation for the conference, but Mr Brown rose to the challenge and made what by common consensus was the “speech of his life.”

Its key soundbite - “This is no time for a novice” – neatly skewered both Tory leader David Cameron and the banana-wielding young pretender, Mr Miliband.

Then came the reshuffle, with Mr Brown cutting the ground from under the Blairite plotters by bringing back the Blairiest Blairite of them all – former Hartlepool MP Mr Mandelson.

The return of the newly-ennobled Lord Mandelson had a profound impact on the government, and he is now de facto deputy Prime Minister in addition to his official role as Business Secretary.
Finally, there was Mr Brown’s audacious £500bn banking rescue which meant that ten major banks, including the already-nationalised Northern Rock, are now at least partly in public hands.

Coupled with a Pre-Budget Report that saw the government effectively decide to spend its way out of the recession, it was no less than an attempt to turn the Thatcherite politics of the last 30 years on its head.

Labour’s recovery was confirmed by a triumphant by-election campaign in Glenrothes, finally ending the dismal sequence of defeats that had brought Mr Brown to the edge of the abyss.

The party still trails the Tories in the polls, but the 5-6pc deficit is now of the order of those from which mid-term governments often recover to win the next general election.

Whether or not Mr Brown can pull off that feat remains very much open to doubt, given that the economy is still likely to get much worse before it starts to get better.

But in the crucible of this crisis he has, at the very least, discovered a purpose for his premiership: nothing less than the saving of the British economy.

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Anonymous said...

Oh my God! You really think that Brown's Labour can win the next election? Phew! That's quite a call, Paul.

Have you discounted the massive counter-attack that the Conservatives will be mounting in the New Year? Brown will be toast by March.

Paul Linford said...

I think what I'm saying in the column is yes, GB can win the next election, but as things stand at the moment, it's very doubtful that he will.

Anonymous said...

I think you are wrong about the number of banks that the ten banks "are now at least partly in public hands".

Northern Rock; the loan book of Bradford & Bingley; Lloyds; HBOS and RBS.

Barclays, foolishly, walked away to chase sovereign funs principally from the Middle East at high cost. The only reason being to retain the ability to pay bonuses to executives. I think Barclays will fall into foreign hands eventually because of this action.

The other participates of the rescue agreed the terms but didn't need the money, for example Nationwide Building Society.

Eventually the fact that Brown is an inept fool when it comes to economics will became apparent during 2009. The ability to commit to memory 10 facts and then spout them out at machine gun pace at the end of a budget speech doesn't make Brown an economics mastermind: just a recycled historian.

The theme for 2009, I hope, will be "thirty years of tory scum". Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown what a shower a "the brown stuff"

Anonymous said...

I am concerned that you are living in Derbyshire.
Sorry, love - I come from it and am returning to it. Don't need your brand of muck anywhere near my tail.

Anonymous said...

No more boom or bust anyone?

James Higham said...

The recovery of Labour must be an illusion. He must be the most detested PM in history.

Anonymous said...

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