Saturday, 24 November 2007

Brown Stumbles ... and Falls?

When Gordon Brown agreed with Tony Blair in 1994 that Blair would lead the Labour Party and quite likely become the next prime minister, but that Brown would be his annointed successor, Brown must have felt that he had probably got the best deal that was left open to him. Throughout the Blair regime 1997-2007, Brown as the UK's longest consecutively serving Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Finance Minister) had a major role in the government and at times probably expected Blair to fall opening the way for him. Blair, sustained by his self-centredness and incredible arrogance managed to hold on for 10 years before he finally went and then Brown got his chance. Now, Brown must have anticipated that things would not be plain sailing because the public usually gets tired with politicians after a while, though this is less the case now than it was 30 years ago, with the Conservatives in power for 18 years (11 years of Margaret Thatcher; 7 years of John Major) then 10 more years of Blair, there have only been three prime ministers in 28 years since 1979 compared to seven prime ministers in the 28 years before 1979. So Brown, at worst, would think he had as much chance as Major had after following Thatcher.

This now does not seem to be the case. I think Brown is a better prime minister than Blair ever was, but partly this seems to be his undoing. He is coming undone already. Many of the reasons are cannot be directly blamed on him, such as the loss of identity and bank details of 25 million people claiming child benefit this week. That would have happened if Blair was still in office or there had been a November election and Brown had been replaced by David Cameron. However, this is the luck of the draw and the loss happened on Brown's watch. In terms of the economy, something Brown has been directly responsible for for the past 10 years, stability seems to continue, with all the usual seasonal fluctuations. The remaining economic tool of interest rates seems to have slowed inflation and cooled the ridiculously hot housing market in the way that they are supposed to. Of course Britons have become so hooked on always climbing house prices that these days any slowing of the rise, let alone a fall is seem as some problem in the economy, despite the fact that even average houses are being priced out of the reach of even richer than average people. Someone soon is going to have to face the UK's love of consumption and overheated economy and that is going to be doubly hard given the sustained pressure on oil prices. Given Brown's outlook with that sober, Scottish perspective of his, almost puritan in outlook, it is likely to have to be him rather than anyone else and Cameron will be glad he is not in power as such a readjustment is going to be painful and upset a lot of people's assumptions of what they are entitled to buy. (As an aside interestingly, two months ago all banks reduced people's credit card limits by 10% in an attempt to reduce borrowing. This month, not only did I have that 10% restored, but I had an additional 10% put on top of my original limit. This says something serious about banks' inability to really tackle borrowing when they work in a competitive market).

Brown is being challenged over defence spending. Partly this is a legacy of the Blair years as the UK is still involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as all the other locations where we send troops. Day-to-day costs for the armed forces remain high and mean that expenditure on strategic things is challenged. The trouble is, for a supposedly non-militaristic country, the British absolutely love their armed forces in a way which is probably only rivalled by the USA and France. Even in the USA there are more active protests against the armed forces than there ever are in the UK. So anyone who harps on about 'our brave boys [and of course, increasingly, 'girls' too]' is going to get a sympathetic hearing from the public as the three former defence chiefs now in the House of Lords have received today. Brown made a blunder by combining the Defence Secretary and Scottish Secretary posts in one man. With the advent of the Scottish Parliament the Scottish Secretary's role has shrunk considerably, but in terms of public relations, the British public wants a full-time Defence Secretary charging around in tanks. On organisational grounds it probably made sense [especially as Scots are over-represented in the armed forces], but it is a blunder Blair would not have made.

This brings me to my final main point, which is the fiasco over a November election. David Cameron, Leader of the Opposition [the UK is the only country which has the party which has come second in an election an official post, i.e. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, which entitles them to a number of parliamentary roles], i.e. head of the Conservative Party. He managed very well to turn speculation about an election this month into a commitment that Brown seems to have backed down from. Blair would have very successfully 'spin doctored' his way out of this situation, but Brown has eschewed this media tampering so beloved by Blair and his cronies and in this case he has consequently allowed Cameron to successfully create a phatom issue. Brown could have gone to the polls, but his integrity and common sense stopped him, yet Cameron has portrayed this as vacillation and weakness. In addition, it started a downward slide that with the mishaps mentioned above has reduced Brown's popularity and has concealed his successful handling of terrorism and of the foot-and-mouth and blue tongue outbreaks. If you compare what happened under Blair when terrorists went on to commit another atrocity two weeks after the first and foot-and-mouth spread right across the country, Brown's government has been far more effective, but with minimum credit (partly because farming communities despise the government due to the changes in the rural economy with an oligarchy of supermarkets in control and the issue of the ban on fox hunting, though it only ever appealed to a few farmers has become a beacon for opposition to Labour; rural areas tend to be Conservative anyway).

Brown does not have to have an election until 2009 and whilst it has always been bad for the Labour party to have an election later rather than sooner, Brown may be able to regain some credit in the intervening months. If he can stop his civil servants blundering (or sabotaging) things then that will help. He needs to tread very carefully on defence issues as they are always a natural part of the Conservatives' policies. His own strength in terms of the economy will take time to come through. Sober, even dour, is not exciting and does not appeal these days. Cameron has quite well managed to dismiss his 'silly Billy' manner and comes over as more dynamic which is why Brown will have to work doubly hard to contest Cameron whenever the Brown government makes an error. With the Liberal Democrats' leadership problems still dragging on and with the two main parties so close together on policy, unless Brown can get his strong policies across (and despite my personal horror at it, the increase of detention without trial from 28 days to 58 days is likely to be one these) it is going to come down to a talent show or a beauty contest between Brown and Cameron, something Cameron would win just because he is newer to the scene, if no more attractive in reality. It does appear though, that despite his efforts Cameron is not attracting as much support as you might expect and maybe he is going to have to keep plugging away for months yet. However, with an unlimited potential for blunders and scandals on Labour's horizon, maybe that is all he has to do, just keep on keeping on.

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