Sunday 13 December 2009
Alan Watkins: Anyone else apart from the chiefs?
Parties are putting the spotlight on their leaders – perhaps because the talent stops there
My late friend Frank Johnson, who died too young, three years ago, made his name in what he called the higher journalism. But before that he had worked, briefly, as a political correspondent for The Sun. It was, he later told me, the most difficult job he had ever had to do. One of his tasks was to help to compile the taxation tables after a Budget, or one of those interim reports made by the Chancellor; then, as now, a feature of our political life.
You know the sort of thing: two children, wife working, National Insurance up, net loss, £2. To Frank, these wretched tables were a torment, even though the figures were provided by the Treasury press officer. He would either get somebody else at the office to do the job for him, or simply make the figures up.
In my case, my own financial circumstances were never covered precisely by the tables provided by the papers. It was a waste of energy. In a matter of months, the Chancellor (whether the same one or a new incumbent) would produce some fresh proposals, constructed to deal with the political exigencies of the moment.
There was an illustration of this last week when Mr Alistair Darling's ideas on inheritance tax were quietly jettisoned. That was then: now is now. Mr Darling and Mr Gordon Brown had tried to neutralise Mr George Osborne's cut in inheritance tax in 2007. The result was the cancellation of the general election. Since then, capitalism has collapsed. Inheritance tax has been forced to take a seat at the back of the kirk.
The story goes that Mr Darling wanted to increase Value Added Tax still further, but that Mr Brown resisted this change, and preferred to add a contribution to National Insurance. This provides for only a tiny concession at the bottom end of the scale. NI is the classical regressive tax. But then, VAT is regressive too. So there is very little to choose between Mr Brown and Mr Darling in terms of egalitarian principle.
Mr Darling and Mr Brown are now tied to each other for the duration of this Government. They are like an old married couple. In the last couple of weeks there has been a slight but perceptible change in the Westminster reputations of both politicians, in both cases in the upward direction.
I was about to say that I do not believe a word of it myself. Mr Darling can read out the will in firm terms to the assembled relations, even though there is little of the estate left to distribute. Mr Brown can deploy assorted election ruderies, which he learnt in his youth and can now bring out of storage. It goes down a treat with his supporters on the back benches. Mr Brown has acquired the appearance of self-confidence, rather late in the day.
At the same time, both parties have wreathed themselves in anonymity. A couple of months ago – not so much now – Mr Alan Johnson was being spoken of as a possible successor to Mr Brown, even on this side of the election. Not only has Mr Johnson dropped out of the betting. Most people do not know who the Home Secretary is. That, since you ask, is Mr Johnson.
I wonder how many people know who the present Health secretary is. Recently I asked that of a professional nurse. I was not trying to test her in any way. The subject simply came up because I thought nurses should
be provided with their own cars. (Not much chance of that happening these days.) But the nurse did not know that the minister concerned was Mr Andy Burnham.
It appears that, with the Conservatives, they pursue the same policy of anonymity. This seems to be the handiwork of Mr David Cameron's press adviser, Mr Andy Coulson, by all accounts a low fellow. Accordingly, Mr Cameron's countenance is to be illuminated, while the rest of his colleagues are to be allowed to repose in the shade.
In the last year or so, for instance, a corner seat on Newsnight (it is usually Newsnight) is reserved for the Tory economic-cum-financial spokesman, Mr Philip Hammond. He is a businessman and I have nothing against him. He is not the most exciting broadcaster I have heard, but he fills in valiantly when Mr Osborne is doing something else, or the apparatchiks are keeping Mr Osborne in reserve.
Harold Wilson used to say: "This is not a one-man band," referring to his colleagues on the Labour benches in the 1960s. In fact his comrades were an awkward and a gifted lot. Wilson would have preferred it if it really had been a one-man band.
It is the same story with Mr Cameron today, except that Mr Cameron does not have much talent in reserve. And it is an even more sorry story with Mr Brown. Labour will have been in office for 13 years. I have not done a count of departing and arriving ministers under Mr Tony Blair. But the turnabout must have been large. Certainly, the merry-go-round whirled away under Mr Brown. This was a matter partly of bad luck, and partly of a wish to safeguard his own position.
I have said something of Mr Brown and something of Mr Cameron. What about the Liberal Democrats? Poor things, they tend to be squeezed in at the end or not be mentioned at all. The sharp-eyed – or the optimistic – detect a slight rise in Liberal Democrat support. It is what the Victorians used to call a "hum". I owe the usage in the present context to the late Enoch Powell. It was used to describe a political fashion of the moment.
It seems to me evident that the Iraq inquiry will remind people that Mr Blair, supported by most of the Labour Party, started the war; that the majority of the Conservative Party supported it; and that the only political opposition was provided by the Liberal Democrats. I never thought that the Iraq war would be forgotten even without the present inquiry. Mr Brown has served to remind people of it all over again.
I still think the Liberal Democrats will have fewer seats than they hold now. Mr Cameron will make inroads into Lib Dem support. We live in an unjust world.
The other factor is Mr Vince Cable. Several people have said to me over the last week that they would not want the Liberal Democrats to form a government. But they would quite like to have Mr Cable as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He seems a sensible sort of chap, more so at any rate, than Mr Darling or Mr Osborne. The runner-up in that private poll is Mr Kenneth Clarke.
In the period of the "hum" about the hung parliament, which has gone on for some weeks now, the talk has been about alliances, chiefly about a coming together of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Most people do not distinguish between an arrangement and a coalition. Most coalitions are fraudulent, "England does not love coalitions," so Disraeli said. And he was quite right.
I expect to see a Conservative government with Mr Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The truth is, however, that more people would prefer to see Mr Cable in the job. Until we find a new political system, that will prove difficult to arrange.
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