Sunday 20 December 2009
Alan Watkins: Mr Brown's diversionary tactics
Talk of hung parliaments, class war and snap elections are little more than ploys but they create a 'hum'
The candid commentator will christen the month that has just passed as the clutching-at-straws month. There have been three distinctive phases, perhaps more if you categorise and subdivide with sufficient ingenuity. The grand unifying notion is, or is supposed to be, that Mr David Cameron is jumpy, unsure of himself.
A terrible swift sword hangs over him, as it did over Mr Neil Kinnock (as he was in those days) at the Sheffield Rally of 1992. Older Labour MPs, if there are any of them left, still mention the occasion to their younger colleagues in tones of awe.
As a matter of strict historical fact, the row did not occur till later, when the votes were counted, and Labour had lost. Indeed, one of the few observers who grasped what was happening at the time was the television critic Mr John Naughton. No matter. Tory supporters – or their opponents – have only to whisper "Sheffield Rally" to bring about an exhibition of humility, whether real or pretended or a combination of both.
The first phase of clutching at straws concerned the hung parliament. There was a single opinion poll saying that the Conservatives would probably win a majority but not the minimum of 326 seats required to hold an absolute majority. In turn, this depends on various factors favouring Labour or penalising the present opposition.
The calculations embodying these conclusions are rarely shown. We leave it to the pollsters, and move on. Other polls have been published since, showing large variations: for instance, one showing a Conservative lead of 17 points, and another, within days (both taken after the special Budget), showing a Conservative lead of nine.
The second phase, after the reinvention of the hung parliament, was Mr Gordon Brown's rediscovery of the class war. Most English journalists are obsessed by where people went to school, though most of them cannot be bothered to get the details precisely right. The majority of their readers, by contrast, do not bother their heads with the educational background of their subjects, as presented to them in the papers, or, more usually, on television.
I once asked a man in a pub what he thought Enoch Powell's educational background was. He seemed surprised, even affronted. "Enoch is an educated man," the stranger replied: a commendably accurate reply, even if a little brisk. However, several times I have had the difficulty of telling people that Powell was opposed to capital punishment. "Never," they said. "Not old Enoch. You must be thinking of someone else." Such is the power of the image, which has dominated advertising and politics for over a century.
We come now to the third phase. There is the murmur for what some people are calling a "snap election". There have been elections in February in 1950 and 1974; in March in 1966; in April in 1992; in May in 1955, 1979, 1997 and 2005. Mr Tony Blair would have gone to the country in May 2001 likewise if it had not been for the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
October used to be the traditional month for general elections. June has become the favoured month for the Conservatives, and May for Labour. There is the argument against being "boxed in". But Mr John Major boxed himself in and won unexpectedly in April 1992; while he did likewise in May 1997 and lost overwhelmingly.
The idea that Mr Brown should strike while the iron was still hot and hold an election in March strikes me as fanciful, to say the least. What iron? What heat?
I have mentioned two "hums", the phrase I used last week – the hung parliament and the relatively quick election – and one political change inaugurated or, at any rate, revived by Mr Brown, in the shape of the class war. They are not three of a kind. But there is a unifying theme. It is all about the preservation of Mr Brown until such time as he can take his rightful place as the salvation of Western capitalism.
There must be somewhere in the United States which would see him presiding over the institute for the preservation of fine old dollar bills. Until then, Mr Brown must be allowed to hang on undisturbed.
At the beginning of the parliamentary year, just after the party conferences, the confident prediction was being made that there would be trouble before the year was out. The MPs started out by being surly and despondant; they are now surly and bad-tempered. This is progress of a sort. The talk of putting up a challenger to Mr Brown has evaporated.
Mr Alan Johnson was right about himself first time round. He did not want the top job and he did not think he was up to it. He was lucky to get the Home Office at all. Indeed, he is in a worse position as Home Secretary than he would be if he had stayed at Health. The curse of the Home Office has descended on Mr Johnson, on account of the intransigent attitude displayed by him towards the childlike hacker being scandalously extradited to the United States. I cannot see Mr Johnson being a candidate for the leadership now.
Mr David Miliband is proving an even greater disaster than I thought he would be, which is saying something. It is one thing for a minister to support his department against the judges, as Mr Miliband is doing over the suppression of evidence about torture. That is only to be expected, par for the course. It is something else for Mr Miliband to abuse the whole judicial bench or, at all events, the Court of Appeal, simply because the it takes a different view from the Foreign Office.
I see that Mr Miliband's counsel, Mr Jonathan Sumption, joined in on Mr Miliband's side. He described the judges' actions as "irresponsible". In 2003, he was the famously expensive counsel for the Government in the Hutton inquiry. In his report of the hearings, the late Frank Johnson made fun of Mr Sumption's pompous manner. Afterwards, Mr Sumption complained to his friends. Mr Miliband should be advised to steer well clear of any future dealings with bananas.
I have pointed out before that Mr Jack Straw is the Andrei Gromyko of the present regime. He was the foreign minister of the Soviet republic in the days of the Cold War. A surprisingly youthful Gromyko would be somewhere in the group photograph. I still have the fantasy that Mr Straw would attend Mr Brown and say: "We don't want to lose you, Gordon, but we think you ought to go."
It is not going to happen. Some people think Mr Alistair Darling might join in. Some have even speculated that the replacement might be Mr Darling himself. Stranger things have occurred.
But the past month has witnessed a series of diversionary tactics. The revival of the class war has given the backbenchers something to make a noise about. The talk about a hung parliament has given hope that some of them will keep their seats.
Most of all, the prospect of an early election gives added power to the office of prime minister. Logically, it makes no sense; never has done. But prime ministers have always used the threat or the promise of an election as a device to control their own supporters.
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