Sunday, 21 September 2008

Saved by a dead horse

It was recorded by Francis Galton that during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow many a soldier saved his life by creeping inside the warm and reeking carcase of a horse that had died along the way. It is so, perhaps, with Gordon Brown. The once galloping economy, which he has ridden (if not exactly controlled) these past eleven years, has collapsed and expired beneath him. But within its suppurating bowels he might at least find some respite from the chill and bitter winds that swirl round about.

Certainly on the Andrew Marr show this morning the PM looked happier than he has all year. He repeatedly broke out in that slightly creepy, mistimed smile of his as he explained how the apparent collapse of the world financial system shows how important it was for the country, and indeed for the world, that he remains in charge. He even managed to claim that he had laid up reserves against the current catastrophe by paying off debt, conveniently forgetting that he has presided over the biggest spending splurge in history, a tax-funded bonanza that will go down in the records as not merely the most lavish but also the most ill-directed and wasteful that has ever been seen.

For every pound that has gone towards improving public services at least two have been frittered away, in quangoes and regulators, in managers, in phony "public consultations", in preserving and extending public sector pensions while the private pension funds were destroyed by stealth taxes, in diversity tsars and seminars and training courses, in "awareness" campaigns, in PFI contracts that will drown generations yet unborn in debt, in absurdly complex a paper-consuming rules for "tax credits" (where raising tax thresholds could have done the same job with far more efficiency and fairness), in unworkable IT schemes and databases, in unwinnable foreign wars, in cronyism and feather-bedding, and in decimating the British rebate. Among other things. All of which has given Britain the highest budget deficit of any major economy.

And this from a man who used to go on about Prudence.

The Sunday Times today reports that, now cash needs to be found to bail out the banks - not to mention paying for the unemployment that will be the inevitable consequence of the downturn - taxes will soar. A deficit in excess of £100 billion is forecast. It would be nice to think that some of the profligacy of the past decade could simply be reversed, that some of the more obviously unnecessary schemes (ID cards for a start) could be abandoned. And perhaps, if nothing else, the increased demands on the Treasury in the next few years will serve to slow down the inexorable expansion of the state into private life and voluntary associations. All the state snoopers need to be paid, after all, and where is the money going to come from?

And yet if all this represents the failure of the Blair-Brown years, it also provides Brown with his only hope of survival. Not just because the global meltdown makes the plotting and rivalry at the top of the Labour party look petty, squalid and suddenly irrelevant. Not just because, as Brown's people have been assiduously spinning, this is no time to "drop the pilot", or because, for all his miscalculations, the prime minister retains a grip on the detail of economic policy that no-one else in the Cabinet comes close to approaching. Though that does matter. The sudden disappearance of a leader that the financial markets know and, to an extent, trust would have potentially catastrophic consequences for the government's (and the country's) ability to survive in the weeks and months ahead. Even the Conservatives, enjoying a deserved and commanding lead in the polls, need time to develop and present a coherent economic plan, time of which they would be robbed by the snap election which would inevitably follow a Labour putsch. They would almost certainly win such an election, but at the worst possible time and with an uncertain political outlook.

More straightforwardly, though, the present crisis plays to Gordon Brown's strengths. The Independent on Sunday reports a halving in the Tories' poll lead over Labour. Much of this seems to be due to an improvement in the Liberal Democrats' fortunes following their (largely overlooked) conference last week, but the report is surely accurate in identifying a "Brown bounce". A year ago, Brown was enjoying a similar bounce. A series of small-scale crises - floods, a ludicrous incident at Glasgow airport caused by an inept would-be terrorist, the collapse of Northern Rock, handled by Brown and Alastair Darling in full dither mode - made the new prime minister's dull sobriety seem reassuring. Someone to cling to as the ship went down. It evaporated with suddenness, of course, as it became apparent that Brown lacked much in the way of solutions; but for a brief period, it seemed to many of the British public that he might be able to banish problems merely by glowering at them.

Well, the problems (the financial ones at least) didn't go away. Even the bad weather returned (that's global warming, for you). But as the long slow build-up of gloom has turned to panic, Gordon Brown again, for the time being, seems to be the proverbial safe pair of hands. And he knows it.

There's something else, too, and that has to do with the huge difference (presentationally, at least) between Gordon Brown and his predecessor. Tony Blair was a motivator, a magician, a creator of political narratives. The narratives themselves were largely illusory, whether he was conjuring up a "young country" or exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but they took on sufficient life of their own to produce measurable effects. It was only with his departure that the essential emptiness of the Blair project became readily apparent. Brown, it need hardly be said, lacks this rhetorical ability. He is a manager, a details man, a Muggle; there is about him no air of creativity. He cannot invent his own narrative, nor convincingly enunciate an inspiring programme. He needs an externally provided framework to function. For years, Blair's lofty pronouncements provided that framework, which goes some way towards explaining why he became so lost when he was left on his own. But the collapse of the global economy has a strong, an unavoidable, narrative of its own. For the first time since he took office, Gordon Brown doesn't need to come up with a vision. No wonder he looks so much more relaxed.

I was struck, in this morning's interview, by the number of times Brown said "the world has changed", "this is a new world", or variations thereon. It reminded me of Tony Blair in the wake of 9/11. That, of course, was his moment, when his messianic ambitions ran free and he could speak without irony of re-ordering the world around him. Seven years of folly ensued. But the age of Blair (and Bush) is now, finally, over. A duller, more realistic age has now begun. It's unlikely, in the long term, to be the age of Gordon Brown. But that has, at least, become a possibility.