Alan Watkins: In the long run, Mr Cameron need not worry

Whatever the Prime Minister's current crisis standing, most Labour MPs expect to lose the next election
Click to follow

Towards the middle of the last recession – the last one, when John Major went on to win the 1992 election – I was glancing at a brief but admiring "profile" of a man wearing a cheerful expression and a smart suit. He was, it turned out, a liquidator – an accountant by occupation – and his services were much in demand in those straitened times. He was, we were given to understand, at the height of his profession, though there were others of equal eminence.

I discussed the matter with an old friend, not an accountant but a humorous columnist. Since you ask, it was Oliver Pritchett, who (as the phrase goes) writes for another newspaper. "Say what you like," Oliver remarked, "Britain leads the world in liquidators." I believe he went on to devote an entire column to the subject.

At the beginning of last week, Mr Gordon Brown was being treated in the same way. Britain led the world in getting out of disasters. The papers tried to accuse Mr Nicolas Sarkozy of claiming the credit. Ms Emily Maitlis on BBC's Newsnight tried to make bad blood with a formidable lady, the French finance minister, and met with a chilly response.

Even so, the British press tried to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the successful transfer of a West End production to the Broadway stage. Hitherto obscure performers are hailed as stars: Mr Alistair Darling may be an example of this. Actors who had fallen on hard times find their careers miraculously revived: Mr Blair is certainly an example of that.

It was Mr Tony Blair, not Mr Brown, who was accused of possessing an innate sense of theatricality. But Mr Brown was theatrical enough, in his own way, by omitting to turn up at Prime Minister's Questions and spending Wednesday morning in Brussels instead. He had enjoyed his moment of triumph in the House the week before. Like all the old performers – and as Mr Blair's young aide advised on his retirement – he left the audience asking for more.

For myself, I am unable to understand why, in what is supposed to be a period of grave national emergency, Mr Brown could not have been in Brussels on the Wednesday and taken questions on the Thursday. The House can move quite fast when it chooses to do so. Come to that, I am unable to see why all the chairs have to be rearranged simply because the Prime Minister is away.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the Liberal Democrats' Dr Vince Cable, while Mr William Hague is so accomplished a parliamentary performer that he can bore for his party and his leader without the slightest degree of difficulty.

But it would still have been nice to hear from Mr David Cameron in person: and Mr Nick Clegg has few enough opportunities to dazzle us without being forced to keep quiet simply because Mr Brown is away.

If substitutes are to be allowed at all, they should at least be allocated on a rational basis. Thus John Biffen took Margaret Thatcher's place when she had William Whitelaw as Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Hague is simply the shadow Foreign Secretary. Ms Harriet Harman is not Deputy Prime Minister but deputy leader and, in Mr Brown's absence, she takes questions, presumably as deputy leader rather than as Leader of the House. It is all a thorough muddle.

When the week began, politicians and the press were in a condition of over-excitement.

It was not true, for instance, that the Labour manifesto of 1983 had promised to nationalise the banks. This what was Sir Gerald Kaufman (then unknighted) had described at the time as "the longest suicide note in history". This document, it may be remembered, proposed to take Britain out of Europe without a referendum – just like that.

Its proposals on the banks were more moderate. It wanted the Bank of England to be more active in supervising the other banks.

It proposed a new "people's bank", formed by amalgamating National Savings, the Post Office Giro and (god knows why) the office of the Paymaster-General. And it threatened to take into public ownership – form unspecified – any bank or banks that did not comply with the wishes of the Government.

So the Labour Party, led by Mr Michael Foot, was not proposing to nationalise the banks.

And the Labour Government, led by Mr Brown, does not intend to nationalise them either. The week has witnessed a series of somewhat bewildering "clarifications" made by Mr Darling, by the banks or by various other financial authorities, notably Lord Turner of the Financial Services Authority.

There is an analogy with the statement issued by the Government a decade ago when matters were looking none too bright in Northern Ireland. The Government stated that it was not asserting any "strategic interest" in remaining in that country. It is rather the same with the present Government and the banks. Mr Darling seems to be saying that this is a temporary phase, after which normal service will be resumed.

My heart does not, I confess, leap with joy at the news that Baroness Vadera, Mr Brown's long-term adviser and a newly elevated minister, has been playing a prominent part in the negotiations with the banks. She was, it appears, the inventor or, anyway, the part-inventor, of a system of dodgy accounting whereby huge sums were taken, as the phrase goes, "off balance sheet".

Her monument was the Private Finance Initiative, under which new hospitals find themselves permanently in debt. Mr Brown clearly has a high regard for her.

Mr Brown himself has clearly done several foolish things over the past decade. But he has been caught in a machine which was set in motion when he had only just entered the House of Commons in 1983: its preliminary drawings had been set down in the 1970s. It is not the end of capitalism as we know it. But it is more than a recession such as we suffered in the early 1990s or in the mid-1970s.

In 1992 the Conservatives unexpectedly won: in 1974 they unexpectedly lost, and we had Labour governments for the next five years. Most Labour MPs still think they are going to lose the next election. The difference the period since the conferences has made is that the Conservatives are not nearly so sure of themselves as they were a few months ago. Objectively, as the Marxists used to say, Mr Cameron has no need to worry.

Mr Brown and Mr Darling have poured money into the banks, so far without discernible results. There is still doubt about who controls them; about how much has been or is to be contributed; about the dividends, if any, to be paid; about who is to sit on the boards.

There is even doubt, to me at any rate, about whether 60 per cent of Royal Bank of Scotland is owned by the Treasury and, if it is, whether the same proportion of the Queen's bank, Coutts & Co – a subsidiary of RBS – is owned by us. too. I doubt it somehow.