Sunday 8 June 2008
Alan Watkins: It takes more than 42 days to save a PM
Gordon Brown's belief that a Commons win on detention of terror suspects will revive his premiership is mistaken
In January 1961 I was in the United States, and listened to J F Kennedy's inaugural address on American television. It had been snowing but, in the open and cold air, he wore no overcoat, which I remember thinking was a bit of showing off on his part.
The doctrines he was propounding gave me cause for even greater suspicion. He was seeking to justify aggressive action in any part of the globe. So, indeed, it turned out. Within months, US forces were in Laos, if they were not there already; by the time of his assassination they were in Vietnam.
The likely consequences of President Kennedy were plain for all to see at the time, from the very beginning. He (or his speechwriters) had said as much. And yet, in Britain, progressive persons and the papers they chose to read were more or less united in praise of the new President.
What a contrast to the tired old regime of Harold Macmillan, who was then Prime Minister! So the New Statesman, which was more influential in those days, wrote in a leading article at the time. The arrival of Kennedy was a sign of hope for all of us.
The choice of Mr Barack Obama has produced a similar effect, and he has not even had to become President first.
In place of Macmillan, we have Mr Gordon Brown. We, or some of us – not I – crave novelty, excitement, what Mr Obama repetitively calls "change". For the best part of this year, I have been reading articles asking why can't our own politics be as interesting as the American variety?
For myself, I have heard enough about Mr Obama and Ms Hillary Clinton to last the rest of my life. But this is, I realise, a minority view among my fellow commentators. Most people in the trade cannot get enough of it.
The BBC, in particular, seems to have gone completely off its head. There appear to be two separate presidential commentators with differing jurisdictions, though the precise details are difficult to fathom. There are lots of others, scattered all over the place. And the actual election has not even begun yet.
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Mr Brown in his present circumstances. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! The voters, or, at any rate, the commentating classes, want excitement. Clearly, tastes change. The public is fickle.
Something under a year ago, Mr Brown was praised because unexciting was precisely what he was. The citizens had had enough of Mr Tony Blair, with his false smile and his answer for everything. He returned to a Westminster committee last week with his charm, by all accounts, quite intact, though I missed the performance myself.
Surely it is unfair for Labour MPs to blame Mr Brown for not being Mr Blair when they themselves, or a good number of them, wanted to kick out Mr Blair and replace him with Mr Brown? But then, politics is unfair, as is life.
Some of them are now saying that it was a mistake for Mr Brown to inherit both the office of Prime Minister and the leadership of his party in the old Tory fashion, as Lord Home last did in 1963. James Callaghan and John Major were, before becoming Prime Minister, both elected by their parties in, respectively, 1976 and 1990.
All Labour leaders since 1922 have been elected, apart from the hiatus between Ramsay MacDonald and C R Attlee, when Arthur Henderson and then George Lansbury filled the gap. That's enough Labour leaders. I dearly urged the Labour Party to have a contest, more for propriety's sake than for anything else. I told them, but they wouldn't listen.
I suspect that a party election in 2007 would not have made any substantial difference to Mr Brown's position today. He would still have won easily, as he might not win today or tomorrow. His failings would be just as apparent, even if he had been duly elected leader of his party. Even so, Mr Brown's position would perhaps have been very slightly stronger if he had contested an election before taking over from Mr Blair. But then, Mr Blair and Mr Brown would both have led happier political lives if they had stood against each other in 1994, when Mr Blair would still have won.
The question of the hour is whether the Government can win this week's vote on the 42-day detention period. There is a delicate balance to be struck by the party managers.
On the one hand, the dread words "vote of confidence" must not be allowed to sully their lips. All kinds of inconvenient consequences might ensue, not least for Mr Brown.
On the other hand, however, Mr Brown wants to win, for reasons of personal prestige as much as for any others. He is not prepared to stake his continuing occupancy of No 10 on the lottery of a Commons' vote. He prefers to place his trust in Ms Jacqui Smith.
It has, I see, even been suggested that Ms Smith should succeed Mr Brown. It is not wholly clear whether she is supposed to be taking over later in the year or, rather, is a longer-term prospect. Picture the scene: Mr Jack Straw and Mr Geoff Hoon, who have been nominated by popular acclamation as bearers of bad tidings to Mr Brown, say to his replacement: "Jacqui, you are the only hope we have left."
The theory is that Ms Smith is the exponent of Mr Brown's only popular policy – that he is embarrassing the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats because they are "soft on terrorism". The endless attempt to wrong-foot the opposition parties, the constant triangulation: it has been the curse of Labour government for the past 11 years. It was started by Mr Blair and his advisers in imitation of Mr Bill Clinton.
My own feeling, however, is that Mr Brown has never wanted to make a clean break with Mr Blair. An element of stubbornness is involved as well. Mr Brown could have accepted defeat with as good a grace as he could muster and settled for 28 days after the original vote in the Commons two years ago.
All the talk is that the Government is going to get its legislation through – just about – and that Ms Smith will be the heroine of the hour. The relief on the Government side is unlikely to last more than a couple of days.
The possibilities of future confusion are endless, not least because questions of individual guilt or innocence are mixed up with the matter of a state of emergency, not merely in this country but abroad. It is against the principles of legislation for MPs to express a view on individual cases. The functions of judges and ministers are hopelessly muddled.
We may even be told that Mr Brown has turned the corner, is on the road to recovery. Numerous medical phrases suggest themselves. I do not believe a word of it.
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