Sunday 4 May 2008
Alan Watkins: Mr Brown is running out of friends
David Cameron is starting to look like a future prime minister, while the current occupant of No 10 is short of ideas and allies
The change during the morning after May Day was that, for the first time, people became convinced that Mr David Cameron could win an outright majority. Harold Wilson managed it almost immediately in 1963, as did Tony Blair in 1994. Margaret Thatcher had to wait a little longer, as Mr Cameron has had to wait till 2 May. Indeed, some of the projections of a Conservative majority – of over 100 – have clearly been a little bit exaggerated, as the lady from Edinburgh is supposed to have remarked on first being taken to a performance of Swan Lake. We need not even completely give up our harmless recreation of speculating about what might or might not happen if no party held an absolute majority. Even so, prudent persons (such as Mr Gordon Brown's friends once claimed him to be) should go on the assumption that Mr Cameron is likely to be the next occupant of No 10.
Mr Boris Johnson's victory in London will have effects for the duration of this parliament, chiefly on the morale of both parties, Tories up, Labour down. My contribution to public-service journalism in last week's column does not seem to have had the slightest effect. Judging by the picture-polls in the papers, the well-meaning voters insisted on giving their second preference to the Green camp candidate or to someone else who did not have the slightest chance.
The Guardian distinguished itself, if that is the word, by running a campaign for Mr Ken Livingstone. Oddly, perhaps, the leader column was restrained enough: "The choice facing London is not a happy one, but Mr Livingstone is the better option."
The columnists were much more fierce, specially the women. I have several friends on the paper in question and even more good acquaintances, though I have always avoided working for it myself. But I have rarely known, in a responsible paper, a candidate for elected office, in this case Mr Johnson, to have been attacked with such ferocity – and, it must be said, with such silliness.
One columnist, expensively educated, insisted on calling Mr Johnson "effete". The dictionary definition is "exhausted; incapable of efficient action". By extension, the meaning has become "effeminate". The Latin meaning was "exhausted by childbirth". I consulted several people, all three of them classical authorities. Did it mean exhausted by giving birth once? Or by numerous births? The authorities did not know, for sure. In any case, words change their meanings, often over quite short periods of time. What is certain is that Mr Johnson is neither exhausted nor effeminate; if anything, he is the cause of exhaustion in others. He is, as he would no doubt put it, full of beans.
Mr Brown is not full of anything very much at the moment. How could he be? From time to time, hopeful spirits in the public prints produce suggestions about what he should do next. These show a remarkable degree of unanimity. Thus: Mr Brown should have three or at most four themes. They should be simple. He should avoid any further references to Britishness or a new Bill of Rights.
No doubt this is all good advice. The trouble is that the Government does not know what action, if any, to take next. For example, on Friday Ms Hazel Blears was saying on Sky News that ministers were having discussions with the banks about easing the position of mortgage payers.
I remember, before the general election of October 1974, Anthony Crosland having similar talks, though on that occasion they were with the building societies rather than with the banks. In that age, Labour's envoy to the forces of capitalism was an affable and rich Mancunian by the name of Harold Lever.
In the age of Tony Blair, the Prime Minister preferred to have more and even richer people around him, though none of them achieved quite the ministerial stature that Lever did. Mr Brown, having sucked up to business and the City for 11 years, first as Chancellor and now as Prime Minister, has no one friendly to whom he can turn.
In Mrs Thatcher's first term of office, some of us remember, unemployment rose. It had been created, quite deliberately, by her government. The party then claimed that unemployment had been brought about by "world conditions" which had nothing to do with Mrs Thatcher or her government. And the voters believed Mrs Thatcher. At least, they gave her a thumping majority at the 1983 election.
Several kindly souls have remarked to me that – since October 2007 – the various disasters which have overtaken Mr Brown have "not really been his fault". The cast of mind which sympathises with Mr Brown was suspicious of Mr Blair, certainly from the invasion of Iraq onwards. In fact, Mr Brown has given his support to that crime more effusively since he became Prime Minister (for instance, in his two visits to the United States) than he ever did as Chancellor, when he kept as quiet as R A Butler did at the time of Suez.
There is a curious switch of allegiances inside the Cabinet. All, or most, of the old Blairites have become Brownites; whereas many of the old Brownites have become, not exactly against Mr Brown, but more likely to view him in a critical spirit.
Ms Blears, whom I mentioned earlier, used to be a leading Blairite; now she is a veritable ray of sunshine in the interests of Mr Brown. When Mr Alistair Darling declined to appear on Newsnight the week before last, certainly another old Brownite, Ms Yvette Cooper, was put up in his place. She was doing her stuff again on Friday evening. But where have the rest of Mr Brown's friends been all this time?
When Mr Cameron got up at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, there were experienced observers who thought he should have asked something about the local elections. The Government's, presumably deliberate, failure to act in cases of fraud at these elections: that might have been a productive seam to mine, though of course the Conservatives might have been equally embarrassed.
Instead, Mr Cameron chose to ask about the 42-day detention period – about whether the Government would lose the vote, and about what Mr Brown proposed to do if the vote was lost. I am old enough to think that, if any party leader goes on about civil liberties, it is party advantage that he usually has in his mind. The possibilities of defeat could have serious consequences, not least for Mr Brown.
In summer 1993, the Conservative government lost a clause on the social chapter in the legislation on the Maastricht Treaty. The clause was restored, and the government survived, by means of a vote of confidence. Two years later, the then Prime Minister, John Major, had to be re-elected by his own party. His hangers-on in the cabinet claimed that he had won a famous victory, though in reality it had been nothing of the kind. Sir John hung on. But governments can lose the will to carry on. Mr Brown, I think, would prefer to have a general election first.
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