Perhaps a small new war might save Gordon’s bacon. The refusal by the foreign secretary, David Miliband, to rule out military action against Iran for developing a second uranium enrichment plant, suggests that Britain is not going to complain too loudly if Israel bombs it, as they did the Osirak plant in Iraq in 1981. There is nothing like heightened international tension to bolster a political leader.
On the other hand, we already have a rather nasty small war going on in Afghanistan and that isn’t doing Gordon a lot of good. When the history of this longest Labour administration in history is finally written, its penchant for launching futile wars will be considered one of its principle failings. Anyway, Brown doesn’t make it as a war leader in the Thatcher or Blair model because he doesn’t do emotion and the troops don’t like him. So there is no get out of jail free card. The government is going down, as the Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, to a “devastating defeat”, Labour’s worst since 1935. Roll over Gordon and tell the party the news.
However, this doesn’t mean there won’t be a modest rally this week in Gordon Brown’s fortunes against the trend. Everyone is so focussed on the PM’s failings – is he going blind? is he on antidepressants? – that a semi-reasonable conference speech like the one he delivered last year with the help of Sarah would give give us something positive to write about for a few days. After all, there is no alternative leader at this Labour conference – Miliband et al having ruled themselves out – so there is no real story, other than Gordon not doing quite as badly as everyone expects. “Brown still there, shock!”
The Chancellor, Alistair Darling’s remarks about Labour having “lost the will to live” sounded suspiciously like a Mandelsonian exercise in pre-conference spin. Lowering expectations on the eve of conference is always a sound policy. It means that the journalists hermetically sealed into the Brighton Conference Centre can be more easily persuaded that things are going well when the conference goes through without a hitch, as it almost certainly will. Mind you, Mandy’s hints that he might accept a role in public life under the Tories – perhaps as a diplomat – might be lowering expectations just a little too far. There’s nothing worse for a prime minister’s authority than the sense that everyone around him is looking for another job.
But here’s the story we’ll be sold this week. We’ll be told that the Cameron Conservatives are untried, and have a huge electoral mountain to climb. That they need an unprecedented swing; that Cameron is a media creation with no policies; that people are still suspicious of the Tories on cuts; and that he economy is doing much better than expected. All true, in their way. We will be invited to draw a comparison with the Tory prime minister, John Major, in 1992 who won in a recession despite sounding like a speak-your-weight machine and leading a Conservative party deeply divided over Europe. If he can do it, so can Gordon.
Well, maybe. The intriguing thing about all the negatives directed at Cameron – media creation etc – is that they weere all applied to Tony Blair in 1997. Labour then had an ‘impossible task’ and an inexperienced leader, but somehow won a landslide majority. It was the depth of unpopularity of the government that killed it. What is interesting this week in Brighton is that no one is talking about opinion polls. There is a very good reason. They are so predictably dire for Gordon Brown that people hardly bother to read them any more. As UK Polling Report, put it: “it’s getting to the point where asking questions about how the public sees Gordon Brown feels like kicking an ailing puppy”.
Except, curiously, in the News of the World, which bought the pre-conference spin and cliamed that its latest BPIX opinion poll suggested Brown was ‘in with a chance’. Really?. The poll had Labour 14 points behind, enough for a 100 seat Tory majority. Twice as many polled thought Cameron would make a better PM than Brown, including 25% of Labour voters. This is not so much clutching at straws as hoisting an elephant on a thread.
The economic crisis – or rather Gordon Brown’s response to it – should have been the defining episode that cemented a bond with the people. But it hasn’t worked. Brown may have been receiving international praise at the G20 summit for promoting the fiscal stimulus that prevented a second Great Depression, but on the streets of Britain things are different. Unemployment is rising and business investment is down; banks are coining it in but, according to one paper at the weekend, people are selling their kidneys to get out of debt.
It may be the most irksome cliché in modern politics, but it IS still the economy, stupid.
Brown’s latest wheeze has been to promise a Fiscal Responsibility Act requiring that the government to balance the books within four years This has taken New Labour’s passion for pointless legislation onto a new level. Introducing a law to make the government do what it is supposed to do anyway is not only a condemnation of the governments record, but an admission that it has lost control. There is already a law that requires governments to behave with fiscal prudence: it is called the Maastricht Treaty, though no one seems to bother about it now. Under EU rules, all member states are supposed to limit borrowing to no more than 3% of GDP. Britain is headed for a deficit of 12% next year, which just shows how pointless fiscal legislation is. If the government was serious, it would be paying down debt already, like the rest of us.
The British people have made their decision. They want no more of this hypocritical administration that passes laws on illegal immigration and then excuses ministers when they break them; that presided over the greatest ever increase in debt and yet claims to be ‘prudent’; that starts wars it can’s finish laying down soldiers lives for no reason; that promised a more equal society and then turned it into a bankers paradise. I’m what you might call a ‘natural’ Labour supporter, in many ways, and even I’ve given up on them. Gordon is so over, not even a third world war could save him.