Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Conquering Hero?

The Evening Standard is reporting "feverish speculation" that Gordon Brown - egged on by "none other than his new comrade-in-arms Peter Mandelson" - is thinking of holding a snap general election on Nov 6th, cashing in his chips after single-handedly saving the world economy from meltdown. The story certainly has a horrible plausibility.

The Conservatives might still be ahead in the polls (for the moment at least) but that lead had already halved before the dramatic events of the weekend, and will no doubt have halved again by tomorrow. The Tory leadership certainly seems to think so. Moreover, while the co-ordinated international action, for which Brown is trying very hard to claim the credit, may have headed off a re-run of the Thirties (time will tell), nothing can stop the forthcoming recession. A recession which, thanks in large measure to Brown's public spending splurges, premised on everlasting growth, will hit Britain (and thus Brown's popularity) particularly badly. But the public don't quite know that yet. At the moment an image of a decisive, almost Churchillian, Gordon, the only man for the crisis (the man who, unlike David Cameron, actually does seem to have a plan, and is busy implementing it) is being very successfully propogated by Downing Street briefings and trotted out in so many opinion pieces that it's fast becoming received opinion.

Not just in Britain, either. In the New York Times, this week's Nobel economist Paul Krugman has been enthusing about the man who might have "saved the world's financial system":


The Brown government has shown itself willing to think clearly about the financial crisis, and act quickly on its conclusions. And this combination of clarity and decisiveness hasn’t been matched by any other Western government, least of all our own.

Le Monde has been equally gushing.

There's a paradox here. Over the past few days, several commentators have picked up on the wartime feel of the current crisis. Yet today we find Gordon Brown - and his many born-again cheerleaders - acting as though the war is already won. On Saturday Matthew Parris speculated that Gordon Brown might try to institute something approaching a national government in the coming months, creating a tricky problem for the opposition. But a recession isn't a war; nor is a banking crisis. Ironically, indeed, the very fact that his action has been so decisive, so swift, and so (fingers crossed) successful means that its political effect is unlikely to be long lasting. Once the real-world effects of the recession kick in - the unemployment, the home repossessions, the falling living standards - voters will forget that for a brief moment in mid-October Gordon Brown bestrode the financial world.

It's worth remembering, too, that Brown was despised and rejected just a couple of weeks ago. His colleagues were briefing against him. Old enemies were relishing the prospect of bringing him down. Even Polly Toynbee had deserted him. The personal animosity won't go away, and the sense of drift that had overcome the government will inevitably return, so bound up was it with the prime minister's vacillating character. Even the masterstroke of bringing back Peter Mandelson is likely to backfire. The stories about his huge Brussels payoff and his Blair-like habit of hanging around on yachts with dodgy billionaires would have been much bigger stories had it not been for the distracting effect of the credit crisis. Such luck is unlikely to hold.

So far there's been little in the way of a convincing response to the current situation from the Conservative party. They're in a bind. As George Osborne pointed out - also in the Standard - it is "bizarre" for the government to claim their bank rescue as a triumph when it is in reality "a necessary but desperate last-ditch attempt to prevent catastrophe". The present trouble is the hangover after a decade-long party built on a huge pile of debt. At the moment, however, none of this seems to matter. And I'm not sure that I agree with Osborne that Gordon's faint but unmistakeable odour of triumphalism "misjudges the public mood". Politicians who appear to have saved the nation - even from troubles largely of their own making - are always popular for a while. They cheered Neville Chamberlain when he came back from Munich.

The big problem for the Tories is that their carefully thought-out strategy for David Cameron's smooth ascent to power is suddenly in shreds. It was the politics of prosperity: he would "share the proceeds of growth"; he would make public services more efficient while making environmentally friendly noises; he would present a fresh face to a country fed up with a tired government and an uninspiring leader. It depended on the unpopularity of both Gordon Brown and the Labour party. The Tory leadership shared the analysis of dissident Blairites and of much of the media that the problem was Gordon Brown. Now that it appears that Brown is, in fact, the solution this easy route to victory is closed off.

The Telegraph's Andrew Porter today reports on a Tory strategy meeting which grappled with the conundrum of how to lay into Brown's failings without seeming - well - unpatriotic or inappropriately partisan. He quotes a well-placed source (Osborne, I think) as saying that "We cannot allow the narrative to get set in people's minds that Brown is suddenly the man we need in a crisis. They need reminding that he is responsible." Indeed; and over the coming year the Conservatives will no doubt find the language and start making the case. But so radical a break with the Cameron strategy - one that was still fully in evidence at the recent Tory conference - will take time. Time that they might not have.

An election now would be a huge risk for the prime minister. The Standard's diary piece claims that a snap poll "could be sold to the public as a necessity". And he could convincingly present the Tories as not being ready to form a government. But such a move would be (and seem) a blatantly political attempt to exploit the current situation; and it would leave many voters suspicious that even worse news was just around the corner. In addition, as Anthony King suggests in the same piece, it might look like panicking, and destroy his reputation as a safe pair of hands. It would also, of course, seem entirely out of character. But then the new decisive Brown of the past few days seems out of character, too. Most likely Mandy (who I assume was the source for the story) is just making mischief. On the other hand, if Labour does against earlier expectations win the Glenrothes by-election in early November - a safe seat, but then so were Glasgow East and Nantwich - all bets are off.

1 comment:

BruceK said...

I should think today's unemployment figures will scotch the idea, which in any case is, as you say, totally out of character.