Alan Watkins: A period of penance is in order, Mr Brown

The Prime Minister has much to reflect upon, but he should not worry too much about Rupert Murdoch – at least over Europe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Aprevious inhabitant of Downing Street, George Canning (died 1827), remarked that the chief function of the backbencher was "to cheer the minister". In the past few weeks, Mr Gordon Brown's supporters in the House have been making slightly more noise after a distinctly tentative, even embarrassed start to their endeavours. This was the occasion when Mr Brown called off the election to devote more time to his vision, and when Mr Alistair Darling produced his copycat statement on the next Budget.

More recently, the Labour backbenchers have taken to yelling "More, more" after Mr Brown's increasingly crude, ill-tempered and, in Mr Tony Blair's word, "clunking" responses to the Opposition. These expressions of support for the Prime Minister at Wednesday's Questions are less spontaneous than they are contrived, prearranged by the Whips.

The Whips on the other side, as we know, are up to exactly the same tricks. The difference is that, after a dreadful summer from their point of view, the Tories are in a more optimistic state, whereas the Labour legislators are in a condition of ill-concealed apprehension. How has it all gone quite so wrong, quite so quickly? Previous Labour prime ministers have enjoyed much longer periods of general approval.

Harold Wilson was thought of as a wonder-working leader from the 1964 election – and before that – until the July measures at the seamen's strike of 1966. Some observers would even mark the end as coming later, with devaluation in 1967.

James Callaghan had a similar spell of approbation, from the IMF crisis in 1976 to the non-election of autumn 1978. In this period it was thought he would defeat Margaret Thatcher.

As for Mr Blair, the honeymoon lasted from his win in 1997 to the invasion of Iraq. It was longer than many a marriage. Until the advent of Mr David Cameron, there was no other suitor in sight.

From the beginning of July to the end of September, the political classes were visited by a fit of collective insanity. It was proclaimed in The Sun that, in the forthcoming general election, Mr Brown was going to win, "and win big". Graver persons, professors of politics and the like, tapped away at their computers (for slide rules went out of fashion many years ago), and announced that Mr Brown would undoubtedly increase his majority and possibly reach treble figures.

I did not believe a word of it. It was as if some people, intent on losing weight, had adjusted the bathroom scales to show them as being half a stone lighter than they really were. Like the scales, the polls give the results but do not tell the truth.

I did not think Mr Brown would go to the country in October but I did think he would consider the matter carefully beforehand. Mr Brown's story is that he had no such notion in his mind at any stage. I am still prepared to believe him. Others may not be so ready. It matters not, as the barristers like to say: Mr Brown has forfeited trust.

A similar thing happened with Wilson in 1967. In his broadcast at the time, he told us that "the pound in your pocket" had not been devalued. This was completely honest. One of his advisers, Thomas Balogh or Richard Crossman, perhaps both, had suggested that the widow or little old lady – somewhere there is always an old lady – would find that her deposit in the post office or building society would remain undiminished. Wilson accepted this suggestion, and lived to regret it ever after.

There is perhaps a closer parallel with Callaghan in 1978. People thought they were being made to look like fools. It is not for nothing, as Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, that "trying to be funny" is one of the most serious accusations that can be made in the English language. Mr Brown tried to be funny at the expense of Conservatives generally and the Conservative conference in particular, and the Tories turned round and bit him.

What then shall Mr Brown do now? A period of penance clearly seems to be called for. There are serious matters to be discussed. One difficulty is that Mr Brown, his ministers or his advisers (for one of the characteristics of the new regime is that some people are advisers merely) had already raised various constitutional topics when Mr Brown took over.

Are we, for instance, to have a separate British Bill of Rights and a new, written British constitution? Or is the one going to lead to – to be subsumed under – the other? We do know, or we think we know, that the Human Rights Act is to continue separately. This is the child of the European Convention on Human Rights of 1949.

It has nothing to do with Brussels – its birthplace is Strasbourg – and the European Union is blameless. The Daily Mail should stop telling fibs. The paper's editor, Mr Paul Dacre, has, I see, been recruited by Mr Brown to serve on a committee concerning the 30-year rule on official papers; in which case he might find the time to correct the paper's errors on human rights legislation.

The new European Treaty is a question of much greater political controversy. It involves Conservatives and referendums, Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and the Daily Mail. I quote the exact words of the 2005 manifesto: "The new Constitutional Treaty ensures the new Europe can work effectively, and that Britain keeps control of key national interests like foreign policy, taxation, social security and defence. The Treaty sets out what the EU can do and what it cannot. It strengthens the voice of national parliaments and governments in EU affairs. It is a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe. We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign wholeheartedly for a 'yes' vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe."

What happened was that certain European nations rejected the new European Constitution in referendums but that all the nations involved (including the UK) went on and made the Treaty anyway. The manifesto clearly refers to "the Treaty", not to "the Constitution". So far, so bad for Labour.

But Labour and Mr Blair made the promise they did over the referendum as the price of the continuing support of Mr Murdoch's papers.

I am reminded of the episode in The Muppet Show where two old gentlemen are shown dancing together. One of them is saying: "But you promised to wear the pink dress."

The other replies: "So I lied."

Mr Murdoch has, after all, broken his word to several persons or organisations in the course of his eventful career. He cannot complain too loudly or for long if, for once, he finds himself on the receiving end of the same treatment.

In any case, a treaty, whether it is called "constitutional" or not, is quite unsuitable for a referendum. It contains numerous provisions. A simple question, whether to join the euro, say, or to leave the union completely, is different. Something tells me that Mr Murdoch's heart is not in The Sun's current campaign, such as it is. He may turn against Mr Brown for other reasons.