Alan Watkins: Green shoots, Mr Brown? I don't see them

As Mr Hain heads for the back benches, the Prime Minister's hope of regaining public trust for New Labour seems forlorn
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The Independent Online

Has any party leader of recent times lost the public trust and gone on to win the subsequent general election? I would make two nominations: Harold Wilson in February 1974 and Tony Blair in May 2005. The Wilson victory is, admittedly, a bit of a cheat on my part. He had been out of office for something under four years and the voters made the best of what was on offer. But then, much the same was true of Mr Blair. It may even have been true, if less obviously so, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

If Mr Brown is seeking consolation for his own troubles, he has a long way to look. There is no reason to differ from the conventional analysis. The lineaments of death are already in place. It is largely a matter of time.

Sir John Major's administration had almost five years of more or less unhappy life, from our exit from the European Monetary System to the next election. Mr Brown's allotted span is two years nine months from the election that never was, or just under three years from his laurel-clad entry into No 10. How long ago it now sounds! And how far is there still to travel!

He will have outlasted Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Anthony Eden, Alec Home and Andrew Bonar Law, the first of whom deserves to outrank most of those who have occupied Downing Street for longer. I doubt, however, whether the Prime Minister who inaugurated the Liberal governments of the early years of the last century will be viewed in the same light as Mr Brown.

Campbell-Bannerman was educated at Glasgow High School. Mr Brown at Kirkcaldy High School; after that the resemblances more or less dry up. Certainly more books have been written on Mr Brown – a whole shelf-ful of them – than there ever have been on the penultimate Liberal Prime Minister. He was succeeded by H H Asquith. In turn, Asquith was succeeded by David Lloyd George as head of a coalition government. Lloyd George was never Prime Minister of a specifically Liberal government but was, rather, the prisoner of the Conservatives.

Mr Brown is nobody's prisoner, not for the moment, at any rate. He can carry on governing, after a fashion, until the beginning of June 2010.

He seems to have adopted the facetious slogan, derived from corporate America at some time in the 1950s: "My indecision is final." Mr Brown's latest piece of indecision is to postpone the introduction of identity cards beyond the next election. It is very doubtful whether Mr Brown will be in a position to introduce anything of any kind after this date.

Besides, in Sir Menzies Campbell's little-noticed speech at Perth, in March 2007, when he was still the leader of his party, he specifically mentioned the jettisoned identity cards as one item in any programme of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Mr Nick Clegg is not, presumably, bound by his predecessor's promises. But here I cannot see any rush to disown Sir Menzies: if anything, I should have thought, Mr Clegg would have been equally enthusiastic in the libertarian cause.

It is exactly the same story with the comings and goings over Northern Rock. Mr Brown cannot make up his mind. The Prime Minister has been in a state of indecision since the time before he could not make up his mind about the election. At last, he has come up with the solution of nationalising liabilities while privatising profits. And even this distribution of financial gifts to the deserving forces of international capitalism may go awry if those forces prove insufficiently grateful to their benefactors.

It is the same story with Mr Peter Hain. I have always liked and, up to a point, admired Mr Hain. As a minister in Mr Blair's government, he was, like certain rugby players, given a licence to roam. Whether this was because he seized his opportunity, or because Mr Blair used him as a lightning conductor, I do not know: probably it was a bit of both. And Mr Hain was hardly the most popular boy in the school. The Labour Party is as full of spite, malice and all uncharitableness as it always has been.

The distinction between the police and the Electoral Commission which Mr Brown chose to draw is almost entirely spurious. The apparent reasoning was that, the commission having declined to become further involved, the only alternative was the police.

The introduction of the police led to Mr Hain's resignation. But the police had already been brought into the investigation of Ms Harriet Harman's funding, from different sources, in the same contest. Ms Harman remained in position, as she remains still. Nor was Mr Blair required to resign simply because the police had been called in during the course of a different investigation, with himself as a witness.

I am sure that Mr Brown tries to be fair. But the weeks-long route taken by Mr Hain is reminiscent of those undertaken by the ministers of the Major government. There is first of all the declaration of confidence, though in Mr Hain's case this seems to have fallen very far short of a ringing endorsement; then there is the mournful exchange of letters.

For senior ministers, the convention has grown up that he is allowed to make a resignation speech. In 1993, Norman Lamont made a speech as the departed Chancellor. He used the phrase about the government's "being in office but not in power". This was widely used at the time as a pithy encapsulation of the difficulties of the Major government. In fact it was first used by a Labour supporter (I think it was Beatrice Webb) of the Labour minority government of 1924.

Lord Lamont was allowed to make a resignation speech even though there was no point of principle dividing his colleagues from himself. He had simply been given the heave-ho by the then Prime Minister in an attempt to purge the memory of the sterling crisis of 1992. Mr Hain would surely be as entitled to make a speech in 2008 as Lord Lamont had been in 1993.

What Lord Lamont did not do was to return to office. For the other new convention of our times has been to allow the space of a gap year, or a gap couple of months, in the politician's progress up the slippery staircase. My guess is that Mr Hain will exchange the staircase permanently for the deeper peace of the back benches.

And what will Mr Hain do once he returns there? What will any of them do? The most powerful force among backbenchers is that of self-preservation. At Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday there was a hoarse yell of "more, more" from some of the Labour pensioners after a typical display of Brownite crudity. It was all got up by the Whips – that is, after all, their job.

There are those who claim to see those green shoots appearing all over the place. It was, I seem to remember, Lord Lamont's former analogy. I do not see them myself.

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