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…

Flash Gordon

Andrew Rawnsley reflects on the findings of a 5000-sample poll published in today’s Observer.

What will especially frighten his advisers is the utter failure of the attempt to mount a fightback since the May Day massacre. In the wake of Labour’s slaughter in the local elections, the Prime Minister has toured TV’s soft sofas in an bid to claw back some public affection. Attempting to do human, he has told voters that he ‘feels your pain’. The public are not responding with empathy for his plight, but with an even bigger urge to inflict pain on their Prime Minister. His personal ratings have actually turned for the worse since he attempted the relaunch of his premiership.

It is not just the depth of this collapse that is stunning. It is the sheer width of it, the comprehensive shattering of his reputation in all the areas that matter to the public. On every leadership quality that is important, the Prime Minister is now regarded less favourably than David Cameron. Even when Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was in terminal decay, his personal ratings were still higher than those of Margaret Thatcher. Mr Brown, a figure who has been dominant in British government for more than a decade, is now seen as less fit to be Prime Minister than his Tory rival, a man whose only job in government has been as a bag carrier to Norman Lamont…

Can Brown recover?

Maybe, says the Economist.

Can Mr Brown reverse the dynamics? He has been offered no shortage of advice from his party. Turn left, say those who never much cared for the New in New Labour, and in his weakness see a chance to ditch it. Smile more, say others—though when Mr Brown tries to speak human he seems less convincing than when he sticks to macroeconomics. There are a few who, despite the risk of looking chaotically undemocratic, simply enjoin him to go: over half the Labour supporters in a Populus poll for the Times want him out.

Mr Brown can scarcely complain about disloyalty, for he helped to inculcate a taste for plots and mutinies during his long march to Downing Street. But would his removal improve things? From the Labour Party’s point of view, there are too many flimsy contenders to replace him and scarcely any serious ones. The struggle to get rid of a leader causes lasting damage—as the Tories, who only recently recovered from the civil war unleashed by the ouster of Lady Thatcher, know well. Besides, the Tories need a huge swing to form a government at the next election, probably in 2010. They are still planning for a hung parliament. Scandal, or an eruption of atavistic, Conservatism may yet weaken Mr Cameron. The new mayor of London, Boris Johnson, now an icon of Tory resurgence, may embarrass his party.

Bertie Wooster elected!

Yep. He’s London’s new Mayor. And all the while he thought he was running for the Wine-Tasting Committee of the Drones Club. Much public entertainment lies ahead.

Bad news for the Supreme Leader, though. The game’s over. And it doesn’t have all that much to do with Gordon Brown’s competence/incompetence. It’s simply that Labour’s time is up. Three reasons for this:

  • Events, dear boy, events: the long boom is over; house prices are on their way down; negative equity beckons; the feel-good factor has evaporated.
  • All governments run out of steam. I had dinner recently with a senior civil servant. I asked him what the atmosphere is like in Whitehall. He said that it felt like the beginning of the end — that the government had basically run out of ideas, that ministers were exhausted and becoming demoralised.
  • The great British electorate isn’t very interested in politics: Labour has been in power so long that it’s become boring. The man on the Clapham omnibus thinks it’s time for a change. It’s nothing to do with a belief that Cameron & Co are wonderful, or even competent. There’s no evidence yet that they could run a whelk stall. Their main merit is just that they’re not Harriet Harman/Gordon Brown/Jack Straw/Jacqui Smith/Hazel Blears…
  • The Observer: Blair told aide ‘Gordon will lose to Cameron’

    Way back in December 2005 I wrote this:

    Whenever someone intelligent seems to be behaving oddly, the hypothesis has to be that they know what they’re doing and that you simply haven’t figured it out. (Sometimes clever people do barmy things, but that’s not the best initial bet.)

    So it is with Tony Blair and the Succession. If — as is widely believed — there is some kind of deal between him and Gordon Brown that the latter is the anointed successor, then Blair’s declared intention of serving “a full term” as Prime Minister seems bizarre. If he really wanted Brown to succeed and have a fighting chance of winning the next election, then there must be an orderly transition fairly soon (and certainly no more than 18 months from now). But this is not how Blair — steaming fanatically ahead with his reform-or-bust agenda — is behaving. Why?

    Watching Brown in action this week as Adair Turner’s sensible report on the pensions crisis was published, an obvious thought occurred to me (I’m slow on the uptake, alas). It’s this: Blair doesn’t want Brown to succeed him, and he’s going to do everything in his power to stop him becoming leader!

    What’s more, he’s right. If Labour goes into the next election with Brown facing David Cameron as the Tory leader, then they will lose.

    Since then various people have pooh-poohed this analysis as the purest fantasy. So it’s really interesting to find this story in this morning’s Observer.

    Gordon Brown’s leadership was in turmoil last night after claims that Tony Blair does not believe he is capable of beating David Cameron and winning the next election.

    The humiliating charge from Blair’s former fundraiser and confidant Lord Levy came as Labour MPs pleaded for Brown to stay away from the campaign trail in this week’s critical London mayoral elections for fear of wrecking Ken Livingstone’s chances. Levy’s intervention will confirm fears that Brown is becoming an electoral liability.

    Even though Blair last night issued a statement categorically denying the claims and insisting he did believe Labour could win under his successor, there was consternation in Downing Street.

    In his memoirs, serialised today in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Levy writes that Blair ‘told me on a number of occasions he was convinced Gordon “could never beat Cameron”‘.

    I can’t claim any special insight for my original analysis. Just common sense.

    The mystery of Broon — contd.

    Martin Kettle thinks the unthinkable?

    This much, though, is certain. Brown is not ready to give up, but nor is he confident he can win the public’s support back. For whatever reason, he lacks the certainty of his predecessor. Even when Blair was wrong, he was clear about where he was heading. But Brown lacks Blair’s confidence – and this is now corrosive. “The challenge is primarily psychological,” says a senior minister, “It’s about being confident.” “He simply doesn’t know what to do,” responds a senior backbencher. “There’s no sense of direction whatever. There’s nothing there.”

    What can Brown do about this mood? Helpfully meant suggestions abound – be more radical, be more centrist, be yourself, be someone else, get a speechwriter, get a haircut – yet most of these miss the point. Guys of 57 don’t change much. The way people have behaved in the past, a wise minister observed this week, is still the best guide to the way they will behave in the future. A large amount of the wishful-thinking school of commentary on the Labour government’s predicament persistently overlooks this obvious point. There isn’t an Attlee or Roosevelt lurking inside the prime minister. There’s just the same old Gordon with the same old strengths and weaknesses…

    The mystery of Broon

    Perceptive column by Polly Toynbee

    Why is Brown on the slide? Why has that 12% lead he earned in the early months evaporated? Those were Labour voters expecting something better, looking for the mission and vision lacking in Blairism, looking for the change, change, change that Brown promised. The mystery of this premiership deepens with every day, perplexing some who thought they knew Brown best. Now he refutes any suggestion he has changed any Blairite “reform” one iota.

    Most dismayed are those who toiled for him for 10 long years, drinking midnight toasts to the king over the water, plotting and obstructing, singing the old Gordon-is-my-darling songs, and telling any of us who would listen that when the bonnie prince sails home, the egregious sins of opportunistic unprincipled Blairism would be expunged. But now the prince is here, his leadership is a pale shadow of what they promised. Inept generalship looks in danger of leading the Labour clans towards their Culloden – and they can see it coming.

    Here is the puzzle. Those who know him know Gordon Brown to be a man of sincere beliefs with a profound concern for the poor at home and abroad. There is nothing showy or sham about him. But, alas, a good man doesn’t necessarily make a good prime minister. So was it right when the Blair camp malevolently tarred him as “psychologically flawed”? Well, who isn’t? There’s no reason to think him any crazier than others with the vaulting ambition to reach No 10. Blair was considerably madder and badder by the time he left office – what with war, Catholic conversion and shameless plunder from fat directorships.

    Gordon Brown is certainly the cleverest prime minister in living memory – but then intellectuals rarely make good leaders. His bookishness may account for his worst failings. He has studied every aspect of every dilemma, met every global expert, perused every research paper, communed with every contrary opinion. He knows there is rarely one simple answer and the world is made of nuanced grey areas. But prime ministers have to make black and white choices every day. When he doesn’t, he increasingly ends up with the worst of all worlds, pleasing no one…

    Gesture politics

    The disintegration of the Brown government is almost painful to watch. here’s the latest example of the replacement of policy by well-intentioned but fatuous gestures:

    LONDON (AP) — The British government wants to ban convicted pedophiles from using social networking Web sites such as Facebook, the Home Office said Friday.

    The plan involves forcing sex offenders to give any e-mail address they use to police, who will then ask the Web sites to block their access, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said.

    Smith said the proposal is aimed at sending out the message that the Internet is ”not a no-go area when it comes to law enforcement.”

    ”We are changing the law … so that we have got better control over the way in which child sex offenders are able to use the Internet,” Smith said on GMTV.

    The government wants to prevent pedophiles from using social networking Web sites to groom children to be sexual abuse victims, according to the Home Office.

    Under the proposed legislation, it would be a crime punishable by up to five years in prison for a convicted child sex offender to use an e-mail address that has not been registered with police, a Home Office spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

    However, the report goes on to say that “the government acknowledges it has yet to work out the details of how the plan would work.”

    Yep. That’s the Broonies for you.

    Between the Rock and a hard place

    So Northern Rock is to be nationalised — something that should have happened months ago. What’s interesting is the light the affair shines on Gordon Brown’s shortcomings — his chronic indecisiveness, coupled with mindblowing stubborness, which means that his government is invariably dragged by the force of events into doing the obvious thing — but too late. This is an administration in terminal decline.

    Later: Anatole Kaletsky is speechless with indignation:

    Why should a Government that has consistently refused to offer public funding for potentially viable commercial projects of real national importance – aerospace, public transport, nuclear power – now be spending tens of billions on supporting a bust mortgage bank? Is it because Britain is short of mortgage lenders, lacks employment opportunities for bankers or suffers a deficiency of financial innovation?

    Even if politicians at Westminster are unwilling to ask such questions there can be no doubt that others will. It is quite likely that the European Commission will veto the business plans for Northern Rock unless these provide for a rapid rundown of both its lending and deposit-taking operations.