Alan Watkins: Mr Brown's revival hits the buffers

The Prime Minister has his back against the wall – or has he simply shot himself in the foot?
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The Independent Online

There has been a luxury of metaphor about the state we are in. Most of them are inaccurate, but that is the way of figures of speech. Some of them have acquired meanings that are the direct opposite of those they originally possessed.

Thus Mr Gordon Brown is insistent that he will not allow the weak to go the wall. The implication is that those who are incapable of looking after themselves will be put up against a wall and shot, or maltreated in other ways.

But in more devout times, churches did not contain pews. The members of the congregation were kept standing. As a gesture of compassion, the very old, the young, cripples – the weak – were allowed to lean against the wall.

Another turn of phrase which has acquired recent popularity is that a politician will be said to have shot himself in the foot. This usually means no more than that he (or she) has been guilty of merely foolish or clumsy behaviour; sometimes there is the suggestion that the result is the opposite of that which had been intended.

The original meaning has been lost, which was that the soldier, originally in the Army of before 1914, did himself an injury in the foot or hand, to avoid an overseas posting, often in India. There is another phrase, not so much a metaphor as a well-worn historical anecdote, which is liable to be brought out at times of economic stringency. This is Marie Antoinette on the riots caused by the shortage of bread: "Let them eat cake."

My story (to which I am sticking, in default of better evidence) is that there were certainly riots, brought about by a bread shortage, but there was in Paris a municipal law providing that, when there was no bread available, brioche should be sold at the same price. The queen asked; "What about the brioche?"

For almost four months now, Mr Brown has been getting away with more than Mr Tony Blair was able to manage. It has been a strange spectacle, even uncanny. For a whole year, from October 2007 onwards, the Prime Minister was turned into a figure of fun. The earnest tricoteuses of The Guardian newspaper demanded the head of Mr Brown. He was to be replaced by Mr David Miliband, who had not, at that stage of his career, taken to wielding a banana.

The last few months of Mr Brown have been, in their way, just as odd as the whole year that went before. The entire political class was ready to be deceived, and Mr Brown was only too anxious to oblige. I became tired of pointing out, week after week, that no, the banks had not been nationalised. Most of the decisions about their future control had not been put in formal terms. Some banks were, indeed, steering clear of the Government, as they still are.

It would be a fine thing if HM the Queen's account with Coutts & Co, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, were taken into full public ownership. Perhaps this can no longer be avoided. So far, the Palace, the financial pages and Mr Brown himself have proved remarkably coy about the future arrangements for the Royal Family.

More generally, Mr Brown is being equally restrained about nationalising the RBS or any other banks which find themselves in trouble. But then, all the banks are in trouble: it is a matter of degree merely. Mr Brown is

more cautious than he likes to give the appearance of being. He hesitated and havered for months and months before finally getting round to nationalising Northern Rock.

It is a paradoxical truth that Dr Vince Cable and the rest of the Liberal Democrats are more enthusiastic about nationalising the banks, or some of the banks, than are most of the Labour Party. Here I am talking not so much about the Labour government as about the party in Parliament.

True, the voluble chairman of the Treasury Committee, Mr John McFall, has called several times for the nationalisation of the banks in recent weeks. He is a party apparatchik, a friend of Mr Brown, and a former teacher of science and mathematics.

Nothing wrong with that – good for him – but he has hardly spent his life in the study of finance. However, from recent experience of those who have devoted themselves to these activities, we should not any longer repose much faith in their solutions.

But from the bulk of the party, I do not detect any swell for public ownership. They are content to do as they are told. For instance, in his intervention at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Mr Dennis Skinner could have called for the nationalisation of the banks. He did not do so. He preferred instead to attack the Tories, whose friends, the bankers, had got us into this mess in the first place.

Wednesday's encounter was notable for something else. Mr David Cameron had the better of Mr Brown. This was not written up afterwards in the public prints, partly because the parliamentary sketch writers enjoy a good scene – and there were no scenes – and maybe because a certain prime ministerial bias enters into reporting in times of trouble. Mr Brown quite failed to explain the banking insurance scheme to his auditors. It was not clear whether he understood it himself.

One of the signs of a change is that, all of a sudden, people have stopped talking about an early election. Mr Brown, to be fair to him, has talked about seeing this thing through, while leaving enough room for him to move should the signs be propitious. The foreshortened Queen's Speech provided enough indications of that opportunity. But the revival of Mr Brown has stalled, for perfectly understandable reasons.

The revival was, however, confined to the political classes. There was very little hard polling evidence. There were polls, not giving voting figures, but providing preferences about whether Mr Brown or Mr Cameron was "good in a crisis". Real results, such as we had at by-elections last year, have not happened, because the politicians have kept on living, even in what has been a hard winter.

It will be interesting to observe whether the end of the Brown revival will see a corresponding rise in Tory confidence. For what seems an age now – it is only since the financial crisis – the Conservatives have lived with the precedent that in 1992, in a recession, the opposition party's glass was dashed from its lips and it was condemned to what turned out to be another five years in the bar of public opinion.

Mr Brown's position is, nevertheless, much worse. He finds himself as a Prime Minister, a former Chancellor who enjoyed political longevity and superficial success. After a long evening in the pub, he would make his way unsteadily home, buy a bag of chips on the journey. Answering a call of nature, he would be holding his chips in the other hand. Disaster! He pissed on his chips. At least the metaphor would be more apt than most of those that have been flung in the Prime Minister's direction in the last few weeks.

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