Alan Watkins: A biblical moment for Mr Brown

Few politicians today have the stamina to make a heavyweight speech. Time to summon Kenneth Clarke
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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago, Lord Mandelson brought up the comparison between Mr Gordon Brown and Moses, leading his people into the Promised Land. This is not the first time such a parallel has been drawn in recent times. Mr Peter Jay, the new ambassador to Washington, drew it in 1977. James Callaghan, Mr Jay's father-in-law, mentioned it himself when they were on a country walk together, and the new ambassador subsequently incorporated it in a speech he made to the press in the American capital.

This was too good an opportunity to miss for the leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, or, rather, her speech-maker Sir Ronald Millar. At the Tory conference she said: "My advice to Moses is: Keep taking the tablets." This referred to the two tablets of stone which Moses had received from the Lord. Despite her religious upbringing Mrs Thatcher had never been top of the class in scriptural studies. Still less was she known for her sense of humour. She could not understand the reference. She suggested a much better line: "Keep taking the Pill."

Her pre-speech advisers were in a difficulty. Quite clearly, she did not have the first idea of why the line was meant to be funny. Moreover, the reference to the Pill was both incomprehensible and in doubtful taste. So the reference to Moses and the tablets stayed in the script and was duly delivered by an uncomprehending Mrs Thatcher.

My advice to Lord Mandelson would be to steer well clear of Moses in relation to Mr Brown. There can be nothing but trouble in store. Already, indeed, there has been the first serious row for months in the Parliamentary Labour Party, brought about by the proposal (if it really is a serious proposal) partly to privatise the Royal Mail. Even Mrs Thatcher in her most confident phase shrank from such a measure, admittedly on her somewhat babyish ground that it had "Royal" in the title. Michael Heseltine later re-examined the idea and quickly withdrew.

Quite why Lord Mandelson has to poke at an anthill at this of all times is difficult to understand, when he has enough to do in the garden already. Our Christmas mail would soon be adrift, like the examination scripts, or whatever they are called these days, that went missing earlier in the year, and, it may be, in previous years as well.

Lord Mandelson has many talents. Or, to be accurate, he has a few talents, of which a gift for the emollient phrase is the most pronounced. Even so, he is not an author of peace. In a few months, he has managed to antagonise, as far as I can see, virtually the entire PLP, and to bring about the resignation of a junior minister.

The strange thing is this: the return of Lord Mandelson has convinced the political press that the Labour Party is now united and has a chance – not yet a good chance, mind you, but nevertheless a chance – of ending up with more seats than the Conservatives. I remain unconvinced. It is more a case of whistling to keep their spirits up or, rather, of shouting "More, more" when Mr Brown has made one of his formulaic ripostes across the dispatch box, usually on the lines that his administration provides actions not words.

In fact, words are Mr Brown's speciality. So are they the speciality of all politicians. The difference between politicians is that some of them, such

as Mr Brown, can make reassuring noises – which have, by and large, been shown to be unjustified – while others, such as Mr David Cameron, are confined to commentary on what the Government is doing or not doing.

The more thoughtful Conservatives, the minority whose political memory goes back beyond 15 years, remember John Major's victory at the 1992 election. The country had suffered a recession, the lament of the moment was "negative equity", and Neil Kinnock seemed certain to win the election. Even the exit polls conducted by the BBC predicted a win for Labour. The party lost.

Some of its supporters said afterwards that it was "a good election to lose" in view of the travails of the Conservative government in 1992-97. Others blame John Smith's shadow budget, Labour's Sheffield Rally and the lack of trust in Lord Kinnock, as he was to become.

The Conservatives now remember that election because Mr Cameron might find himself in the same position as the then Labour leader in 1992. The Leader of the Opposition who had unified his party and looked set to move into No 10 could find the valuable vase cruelly snatched from his palsied grasp and smashed on the floor below. It cannot happen; must not happen (I am speaking, you understand, in the voice of a Tory candidate).

One suggestion is that Mr Cameron, like Mr Brown, must try to convey reassurance. He must make speeches on Policy. Harold Wilson did this in 1964; so also did Edward Heath in 1970, even if less exhaustively. Most politicians today do not have the stamina to construct a speech of 15 minutes' duration, except at party conference time; and these occasions are preceded by weeks, even months, of preparation by divers hands.

It would be much better for Mr Cameron to re-call Mr Kenneth Clarke. He, at any rate, would provide the ballast of reassurance, without the need to make a succession of dreary speeches, whether by Mr Cameron or by Mr Clarke. He would fill the position on the opposition side that is occupied by Lord Mandelson in the Government. Indeed, Mr Clarke could sit snugly into the same slot, as shadow minister for business rather than as shadow chancellor, which would understandably annoy Mr George Osborne.

When I mentioned this notion to Mr Clarke last week, he said that he too had heard the rumour, but refused to enlarge on matters to any further extent, as he was on his way to lunch. Mr Clarke's accession would, I suspect, be the cause of some concern to Mr Brown.

An even greater cause of worry for the Prime Minister, any prime minister, is the date of the general election. In 1964 there was a dispute in the Tory cabinet about whether to go to the country in the summer or the autumn. In April the Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home announced that he "intended to carry on the government until the last months of its legal life". He went on to October.

Mr Brown is unlikely to make a similar announcement today, though one can never tell. The Queen's Speech, which Her Majesty appeared too bored to read out – and who shall blame her? – was clearly designed for a short session with a possible election at the end of it. February is an unlucky month for all governments. Spring or early summer 2009 is more promising from Mr Brown's point of view.

He and his colleagues are certainly more cheerful than they were, goodness knows why. Before Lord Mandelson and his fellow ministers take the story too seriously, they should remember that the Almighty fell out with his people on various doctrinal matters and that Moses, after suffering numerous tribulations along the way, died before reaching the Promised Land.