Come on Gordon, lighten up. It isn’t the end of the world. So, the Tories are 18% ahead in the latest YouGov poll; there is a summer of industrial discontent looming; you have backbench revolts over tax bands and detention without trial; the economy is heading for recession; inflation has returned with a vengance; people are about to lose their homes; oil has reached nearly $120 dollars a barrel; and the North Sea oil lifeline is about to be cut off by the Grangemouth dispute… Ok, perhaps it is the end of the world after all.
But look on the bright side – at least there aren’t any challengers waiting in the wings. So few serious rivals are there for the top Labour job right now that even the Mogadon Man redux, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is being talked about as a possible successor if Gordon is taken off to the funny farm – though, far be it for me to recycle Blairite smears about Gordon Brown’s alleged “psychological flaws”.
That description of Brown’s mental state was famously fed to the Observer columnist, Andrew Rawnsely, for his book “Servants of the People” by someone Rawnsley described as having “an extremely good claim to know the mind of the prime minister”. Many believed Rawnsley had direct access to the frontal lobes of Tony Blair himself. And ever since there has been no shortage of Labour politicians prepared privately to question the location of Gordon’s marbles.
Right now there is a mini boom in rumours about the prime minister’s psychological condition. He’s variously said to have taken a wobbly after the election-that-never-was, plunged into depression over Christmas, and brought in the New Year by kicking chairs across the room. A Labour MP told the London Evening Standard recently that Brown has “recently got through three mobile phones in one week by hurling them against the wall in anger”. Phone hurling may of course be a perfectly natural response to a series of events which has conspired to undermine Brown’s government.
When things go wrong in politics, they have a tendency to all go wrong together, but rarely on this scale. This time last year Gordon Brown was being hailed as finest Chancellor of the Exchequer in over a hundred years. A financial genius, who had managed to deliver an unprecedented run of eleven years of continuous growth, and had negotiated the rapids of the 2000 stock-market crash, globalisation and the collapse of British manufacturing. Super Brown had restored full employment, introduced the national minimum wage, saved Africa and redistributed wealth to the working poor of Britain. This man could do no wrong.
Now, twelve months on he is being accused of economic mismanagement on an epic scale. Brown is blamed for keeping interest rates artificially low, for promoting an unsustainable boom in house prices; for allowing hedge-fund managers pay less tax than their cleaners; for allowing banks to lend as if there was no tomorrow to people with no future. He has broken his own fiscal rules by spending his way into a downturn and standing idly by while most of Britain’s more productive assets were sold off to foreigners. It came as a shock to many people to learn that the British Airports Authority – of Terminal 5 is now owned by a Spanish company that doesn’t really care what the government or the British public thinks.
Brown’s progress from hero to zero has mirrored the astonishing turnaround in the state of the British economy. Reading the know-it-all financial pundits today you would scarcely believe that most of them were saying only a few months ago that this was the most stable and positive economic environment Britain had ever experienced. Economic commentators seriously believed that house prices would rise forever; that you could replace manufacturing with ‘financial services’; that inflation had been conquered and that full employment was now the norm. Then Northern Rock happened.
It’s hardly surprising then that Gordon Brown is throwing phones around. It is almost as if Tony Blair had waited just long enough to see out the good times before he finally tossed the keys to Gordon with a knowing smirk. Brown thought he was living the new economic paradigm until, like Life on Mars, he discovere that he has been returned to the 1970s. The eruption of trades union militancy is the most remarkable echo of that decade. Last week English teachers went on strike, Grangemouth was shut down, 10,000 Scottish civil servants were joined by coast guards in a 24 hour walk out. Millions of local authorities workers, health workers and civil servants are to be balloted on strike action in the coming weeks.
This change in the climate of UK industrial relations has happened almost over night. Only last December, the Bank of England’s labour market expert, Professor David Blanchflower, said “wage pressure int eh UK is benign and likely to remain so” because “immigration and fear of unemployment” had reduced the bargaining position of British workers. It was a cynical and nasty banker’s view – and it seriously underestimated the determination of workers to defend their living standards.
Now, apparently from nowhere, militant trades unions leaders like Mark Serwotka of the public service union PCS are back on the TV screens and his members are out on the streets. And it’s not hard to understand why. In the last year the cost of food has risen by 15% ; energy bills have risen by a quarter; petrol is at 110p a litre. The official CPI inflation figure of 2.5% has been utterly discredited.
Brown is suddenly standing in roughly the position of the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1978, before the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Callaghan also faced trouble from the SNP, who helped finally to bring him down in 1979. All we need now is for Brown to say “crisis what crisis” and the picture would be complete.
But Gordon Brown isn’t the avuncular and bucolic “Farmer” Jim Callaghan. He is altogether more brittle and – in a political sense at least – neurotic in his relentless micromanagement and attention to detail. He is also very Scottish, which doesn’t help him bond with the majority population of the UK. The Prime Minister actually had a relatively good week at question time in the Commons, but he was kicked around the comment pieces anyway.
Brown has been forced to back down over 10 tax, and he faces defeat over the legislation on 42 day detention. His embryology bill is under assault from Catholic ministers. After eight months of dither and u-turns, MPs are no longer afraid of him, and nor are the trades unions or the bankers, who have been allowed to plunder tax-payer’s money without penalty. Brown has alienated the Left of the party, and emboldened the Blairite old guard. It may not be the end of the world; but it is the end for Gordon Brown.