Labour’s affair with bankers


Gordon Brown sucking up to Richard S. Fuld, CEO of Lehman Bros, just after opening Lehman’s new London HQ. Photograph from tonight’s ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4.

Terrific FT.com column by John Kay.

What would have happened if the Financial Services Authority or Bank of England had sought to block the competing bids from RBS and Barclays for ABN Amro – a contest which, we now know, would bankrupt the bank that won the race? The phones in Downing Street would have been ringing insistently and it is easy to imagine the government’s response.

Little has changed. The government continues to see financial services through the eyes of the financial services industry, for which the priority is to restore business as usual. For a time in 2008, it seemed possible to argue that a package of temporary support for the banking industry, combined with substantial recapitalisation of the weaker players, might stabilise the financial sector and prevent serious knock-on effects.

But the problems of banks are much deeper than were then acknowledged and the destabilisation of the real economy has happened anyway. Government now provides taxpayers’ money to financial services businesses in previously unimaginable quantities. But there is no control over the use of the money, no insistence on structural reform or management reorganisation, no safeguarding of the essential economic functions of the financial services industry and no accountability for the damage that has been done.

It is as though the teenage children and their friends were to wreck the house and then demand that the grown-ups clean up before the next party. Their parents are too intimidated to do anything more than ask Uncle Adair to keep an eye on them and excoriate the hapless Fred who made off with some of the silver.

Farewell my Darling: the fall guy’s final budget

The Economist thinks that it was a dishonest, politicking effort. It’s hard to disagree.

The wheel of fortune turns swiftly in politics. Gordon Brown pulled off the G20 meeting in London on April 2nd, emerging with a plausible aura of global statesmanship. After a handful of Labour sleaze stories and a misguided statement on YouTube, the prime minister looked more like Richard Nixon: shifty, angry and with a list of enemies to smear. And that was before a downright dishonest budget on April 22nd.

The budget was a crucial one, for two reasons. First, Mr Brown is running out of time—he has to hold an election by June 2010—and Britain seems increasingly fed up with him. The public regards his party with distaste (see article). That’s partly because a dozen years in power tends to tarnish: when the home secretary’s husband charges the taxpayer for the porn he watches, one gets an inkling that a government’s time is up. But it’s also because of Mr Brown’s character. His strength, which the G20 meeting displayed, is dour pragmatism. Too often, though, he resorts to tribal politics, in a way that seems both scheming and incompetent.

Second, the budget marks the government’s attempts to deal with the fiscal consequences of the worst slowdown since the second world war. Mr Brown is partly to blame for this mess, but crisis management should have played to his strengths; instead, it revealed his worst side…

I’ve always thought that the key factor has little or nothing to do with politics. The British electorate isn’t much interested in politics, but when a regime has been in power for a while the public simply gets bored with it. And when that happens, the game is up.

Tony Blair always thought that Brown would be a disaster as Prime Minister (see The Homburg Factor), and in that at least he turns out to have been right. I’ve never met Brown, but he’s always seemed fishy. What’s especially creepy is all that sanctimonious crap about being “a son of the Manse”, as if somehow that elevated him onto a higher moral plane than the rest of us — not to mention the rest of the political class. The Damien McBride episode exposed this moralistic posturing for what it was — hypocritical baloney. McBride has been close to Brown for years. Everyone who ever came into contact with McB knew what he was like. Brown not only knew, but obviously approved — otherwise why would he have kept him on (and brought him with him to Number Ten)?

The ubiquitous commentator Will Hutton has done a two-part TV documentary for Dispatches on how the financial crisis happened. The first part was screened last night, and although it’s clear that Hutton is riding his own hobby-horse (i.e. the view that the British government and regulators proved deeply incompetent when it came to the crunch), his film did include three toe-curling video clips.

The first shows Brown, newly-installed as Chancellor, explaining smugly to the House of Commons how his shiny new tripartite system for ‘light’ regulation of the banking system was a world beater — while, behind him, Tony Blair smirks complacently on the government front bench. The second clip shows Brown giving his first speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet and sucking up in a nauseating way to the assembled members of the City elite. The final clip shows him opening the London office of Lehman Brothers: he unveils a plaque and then begins fawning on Richard Fuld, CEO of the bank and arguably the creepiest-looking dude since Boris Karloff hung up his mask. What these clips illustrate above all is the extent to which Brown was in awe of the soi-disant ‘masters of the universe’. They should be on a permanent loop. Perhaps they already are — on YouTube.

Now that’s what I call a ‘government of all the talents’

The NYT is reporting that Obama will nominate Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as his energy secretary. What’s interesting about that? Well, Mr Chu has a Nobel Prize for physics. Rather puts Gordon Brown’s feeble efforts to attract talent to his administration in perspective, doesn’t it. Who was it he appointed — a guy called Digby Jones?

Could Labour win again?

I’ve just caught up with David Miliband’s article, which is refreshing because it’s about ideas rather than the brain-dead media obsession with Brown’s personality. I liked this passage:

With hindsight, we should have got on with reforming the NHS sooner. We needed better planning for how to win the peace in Iraq, not just win the war. We should have devolved more power away from Whitehall and Westminster. We needed a clearer drive towards becoming a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy, not just to tackle climate change but to cut energy bills.

But 10 years of rising prosperity, a health service brought back from the brink, and social norms around women’s and minority rights transformed, have not come about by accident. After all, the Tories opposed almost all the measures that have made a difference — from the windfall tax on privatised utilities to family-friendly working.

Now what are they offering? The Tories say society is broken. By what measure? Rising crime? No, crime has fallen more in the past 10 years than at any time in the past century. Knife crime and gun crime are serious problems. But since targeting the spike in gun crime, it has been cut by 13% in a year, and we have to do the same with knife crime.

What about the social breakdown that causes crime? More single parents dependent on the state? No, employment has risen sharply for lone parents because the state has funded childcare and made work pay. Falling school standards? No, they are rising. More asylum seekers? No, we said we would reform the system and slash the numbers, and we did…

That’s a start. It’s nice to see a Labour bigwig express some regrets. But he doesn’t go far enough. No serious mention of the decision to go to war in Iraq, for example (just regret that there wasn’t more planning for the aftermath). No appreciation of the fundamental weaknesses of Labour’s approach to the public services — in particular its crazed obsession with ‘targets’. And then there’s the government’s innate authoritarianism, its insistence on detention without charge or trial, its determination to have an ID card system and its relentless extension of the powers of surveillance. Miliband’s willingness to admit to weakness and maybe even of error is a welcome change, but it looks like pretty feeble stuff to me.

Now if there were to be a putsch that unhorsed Brown, and if the new leader were really to make a clean break with the past in relation to the above list, then it would pull the rug from under the Cameroonians, and might even cause the electorate to rub its collective eyes in amazement — and interest. But I can’t see it happening.

Sunder Katwala (Secretary of the Fabian Society) has some critical comments on the Miliband article.

On the beach

Nice piece of literary fantasy in his week’s Economist, which has been wondering if Gordon Brown has a future.

He decided to ring Downing Street. No, his chief of strategy told him, there had been no outbreaks of agricultural disease that might require him to convene a COBRA emergency meeting. No, they were not expecting any abnormal weather that would oblige him to rush back to London. Try to relax, prime minister, the strategist said.

He tried. He went down to the beach and made a sandcastle, carefully planting a miniature Union Jack on top of it, endeavouring not to think about the perfidy of the voters in the Glasgow East by-election and the deluded nationalism of his Scottish countrymen. Finally he rolled up his trousers and waded into the surf, looking out moodily across the grey and choppy waters. His mind flitted between love, fate, betrayal, the decline of North Sea mackerel stocks and the Icelandic cod war of 1958. For a moment, he felt at peace. He loosened his tie.

Inside the bunker

Extraordinary piece in today’s Financial Times about what it’s like inside the Downing Street bunker.

For Downing Street staff, the early morning e-mails from the prime minister can set the tone for the whole day. “People feel permanently under the cosh,” says one with experience of life in the Brown bunker. “It is not an efficient or happy place to work. Gordon’s working methods are chaotic and extremely demanding.”

When things are going badly, the atmosphere sours. Staff with bad news to break say they have developed a tactic to avoid a prime ministerial eruption. “If you go in and appear very angry yourself, the PM can be sympathetic,” says one. It is not just the backroom team who receive regular tongue-lashings. Ministers report being summoned in for a chat and leaving with their ears burning.

Mr Brown, according to his officials, has a particularly volatile relationship with staplers, on one occasion stapling his hand in a moment of rage. On other occasions they become missiles. These incidents suggest a prime minister living on the edge. Some aides fear there will be a “blow up” moment in front of a camera, exposing the prime minister they know in private to the world outside.

What’s amazing — if this account is accurate — is that Brown is maniacally obsessed with newspaper headlines. The article claims that he’s up at 4am, emailing staff about ways of countering the next day’s news. Thus,

The prime minister’s obsession with the daily news cycle demands that he comes up with initiatives at short notice. Hospitals have been called early in the morning to be informed Mr Brown would like to visit.

Whatever he announces may not be fully formed. Relevant ministers admit that even they know little of what Mr Brown intends to say, fuelling Labour MPs’ claims that he is putting tactics before long-term strategy.

Ministers report being woken at dawn by Mr Brown, urging them to get on the airwaves to address the story of the day. A stabbing in south London demands that Mr Brown convenes a “knife crime summit”. A fuel blockade requires an “oil summit”.

I’m genuinely astonished by this, mainly because I fell for the story that Brown, whatever his defects, was a long-term, strategic thinker. The FT portrays him instead as “a prime minister obsessed by the next day’s headlines, working hellish hours, prone to anger, micromanaging the detail of government and slow to take decisions”.

The Homburg factor (contd)

Today’s papers are full of absurdly feeble stories about the ‘crisis’ now afflicting the government. Nobody really knows anything — so there are lots of ‘analysis’ pieces which simply string together every factoid and unattributable quote that the hacks have managed to garner.

Yesterday, Martin Kettle wrote this:

So far, very few MPs have gone public about their lack of confidence in Brown. But, make no mistake, such views are now the norm among increasingly large numbers of consenting backbenchers in private. These backbenchers have finally been pummelled out of their comfort zone by the events of this spring. They now fear Labour cannot win the next general election under Brown’s leadership. They say and believe that he has to go. They do not believe either that Brown will change or that – even if he did – voters would any longer pay attention to it. The question that now consumes these MPs is not whether Gordon Brown will step down – but how and when…

What this conveniently overlooks is that these are the same Labour MPs who lacked the bottle to challenge Brown’s appropriation of the leadership less than 12 months ago. In that sense they’re all complicit in the unfolding disaster. Although Martin Kettle still thinks it unlikely, it’s possible that they will eventually find the nerve to unhorse Brown. But that won’t make any difference. The game’s over. The electorate is bored with them. And besides the British system only works by alternating power between elected dictatorships.

Footnote: Puzzled by the Homburg reference? See here. And, while we’re on the subject, it’s interesting that in his memoirs Lord Levy, Tony Blair’s bagman, quotes Blair as telling him that Brown lacked the political qualities needed to defeat David Cameron.

The Crewe cut

Next Thursday sees the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, which just might turn out to be one of those pivotal by-elections. Andrew Rawnsley has some sharp comments about the nature and tone of the Labour campaign up there.

What was once regarded as the cleverest electioneering operation in the democratic world has descended into a crude parody of the silliest and nastiest aspects of political campaigning. Labour activists dressed in toppers and tails stalk the Tory candidate to attack him as a ‘toff’ because his family built up a successful chain of shoe repairers. It’s not Edward Timpson who is made to look like the nob by these puerile games.

When not playing the class card in a juvenile way, Labour has been playing the race card in a poisonous way. The BNP is not standing in the seat, but you could be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at their stuff when you read some of Labour’s campaign material. One Labour leaflet invites a vote against the Tories on the grounds that they ‘oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card’. The Tories actually oppose making anyone carry an ID card. Labour should be ashamed of stooping to xenophobia to try to cling on to the seat. They are getting this down and dirty because so much is at stake here, especially for the Prime Minister…

Unflash Gordon’s Al Gore moment

Remember when Al Gore invented the Internet? (Well, actually I suspect that that story may have been an embroidered urban myth.) But here’s a report of a claim by Gordon Brown that a Brit invented the iPod.

While talking about the economy during daytime television show, This Morning, Brown let it drop that it was a Briton who in fact invented the iPod.

“Companies will come and locate in Britain if we have the talented people to offer them,” said Brown. “People with ideas and innovative things that they can market. You know it was a Brit that invented the iPod. If you’ve got really innovative things, people will come to your country to locate.”

Perhaps Brown was confused about the role of design engineer, Jonathan Ive, a Brit who crafted the casing and packaging of the iPod and many other Apple products. We dare say there’s a subtle difference between the house painter and architect. (Let’s also ignore that Brown’s one example of British ingenuity came from an American company, and that mp3 player sales aren’t exactly keeping the US economy primed at the moment.) And even then, Ive ran off to America for a job at Apple in 1992 and currently lives in California.

The Register maintains that the iPod was invented by Tony Fadell, who hails from Michigan!

Labour’s year of magical thinking

Good column by Martin Kettle…

The problem is that Brown is Brown. There is not some other Brown. As he made clear to Andrew Marr last weekend, the prime minister sees the May 1 election reverse as a reprimand, not a rejection. His response is to work harder, like Boxer in Animal Farm. But working harder does not mean working differently, as the clumsy handling of Scotland this week showed.

Brown is set in his ways. His ways are tactical, triangulatory and increasingly old-fashioned. He remains fixated on the Daily Mail. His response to Frank Field’s campaign about the effects of his tax changes on the poor was classic old politics: first he vehemently denied it; then he sent out his nasties to try to take his critics down; then, I am told, he tried to buy Field off – twice – with a government job. Only when that failed did he then concede, extremely grudgingly, that he had got anything wrong.

These were not the responses of a man who understands change. His preposterous 20-hour days – the Sarah Brown profile in the June issue of Vogue reveals that he is often still working at 4am – will become 22-hour days and at some point, he believes, the voters will realise that he is right. To put it at its gentlest, this is what Joan Didion calls magical thinking.

The flipside of the denial about Brown is the continuing denial that anyone other than Brown is papabile. This is the kind of doubt that takes root during long incumbencies of any kind. But the imperative of events invariably dispels it. Political parties always have other potential leaders in the ranks. Labour today has several of them…