Saturday, January 31, 2009

A prophecy fulfilled

A month into the new year, the 2008 media narrative of the Second Brown Bounce now seems a very distant memory. Here's today's Journal column.

Four weeks ago, in my annual preview of the political year ahead, I commented that the art of political forecasting was now becoming a good deal harder than predicting the outcomes of sporting contests.

My point was that the sheer unpredictability of the UK political scene during 2008 – the year of bank nationalisation and the Second Brown Bounce – made sports punditry a doddle by comparison.

But a month into the New Year, I seem to have proved myself wrong. The sporting prediction I made, that Chelsea would regain the premiership title, is already looking pretty threadbare.

By contrast, it seems I was spot on with my political forecasting – that the recession would get much, much worse – and that the political standing of Gordon Brown and Labour would again start to deteriorate.

It didn’t take long, did it? Once again, the Tories are now enjoying the kind of double-digit lead in the opinion polls that would see David Cameron on course for a sizeable Commons majority.

The mood in the country appears to have turned, perhaps decisively. An electorate which a few months back appeared to be impressed with Gordon Brown’s handling of the economic crisis now seems angry and looking around for someone to blame.

I myself noticed the atmosphere change around the back end of November, perhaps at the point at which Woolworths went into administration, to be followed by a series of other High Street names.

Up until then, it had been possible to believe that the crisis really was just about banks refusing to lend to eachother. Over the past two months, though, the impact in the “real economy” has finally been felt – with a vengeance.

Two weeks ago, it was 1,200 jobs lost at Nissan in Sunderland. This week it was 2,500 at steelmaker Corus. Once again the very survival of the UK’s manufacturing base is under threat.

And it’s not just manufacturing of course. It is very obvious to anyone working in a commercial environment that we are facing unprecedentedly difficult times - not least in the newspaper industry.

So the Prime Minister is once again back in a very bad place, and for the Cabinet, as well as for the rest of us, these are anxious days indeed.

As one of the more perceptive Westminster observers wrote this week: “Nerves are beginning to fray. Ministers watch the polls and the economy with equal fascination. The debate about the future of the party and its leadership is under way.”

And if the mood in the country has changed, so has the Prime Minister’s. Once again, the pressure seems to be starting to get to him.

The self-confident, swaggering Gordon of last autumn, when he was busy saving the world from economic catastrophe, has gone, and the old, anxious, workaholic Gordon has returned.

Some say that the possibility of a parliamentary defeat in the vote over the Heathrow third runway this week - a potentially serious blow but hardly terminal, if you’ll excuse the pun - had Mr Brown close to tears.

It seems it was less the issue itself, more the prospect of being seen to be losing his grip that was exercising the Prime Minister.

What has been particularly damaging for Mr Brown over the past month is that, increasingly, independent economic assessments of the UK’s position seem at odds with his own.

Since the start of the crisis, the Prime Minister’s defence has been twofold. Firstly, that it wasn’t my fault, guv. Secondly, that Britain was better placed to weather the coming storm than any other major economy.

The International Monetary Fund begs to differ, however, arguing this week that the slump’s impact will be worse in the coming year in Britain than in the US, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, Canada and Germany.

Even if they turn about to be wrong, it’s a gift to the opposition parties who will no doubt use it repeatedly to undermine the Prime Minister’s boasts about his management of the economy over the past 12 years.

And there is of course one boast in particular will haunt Mr Brown to the end of his days – the claim, repeated as recently as his 2007 Budget Speech, to have abolished “boom and bust.”

The Radio Four presenter Evan Davis gave a fairly good impersonation of his BBC colleague Jeremy Paxman when asking him about it on the Today Programme this week.

Whereas Paxman famously asked Michael Howard 14 times whether he had threatened to overrule the director of the prison service, Davis only managed to ask Brown seven times whether he now accepted that boom had indeed followed bust.

But the effect was the same – a politician pointlessly trying to dodge a journalist’s question when he has already damned himself out of his own, hubristic mouth.

In that New Year column, I made reference to the possibility that Mr Brown may not, in the end, lead his party into the next general election.

This might have seemed like a foolhardy thing to say at the time, given that the dominant 2008 media narrative had been of Mr Brown’s amazing comeback from the ranks of the political walking dead following the election-that-never-was debacle of autumn 2007.

But just as he never succeeded in abolishing boom and bust, I never seriously believed he had succeeded in abolishing the most fundamental law of politics – that governments who preside over economic catastrophe invariably end up facing electoral oblivion.

Now that this fundamental law is starting to reassert itself, it is only a matter of time before the plotting begins again.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suppose Brown will best be remembered for:

'No more boom and bust'

'Britain is best placed to face the recession'

'British jobs for British workers'

Is their anyone left in the country that believes his crap???