Alan Watkins: The Government is breathing its last

Scandals in what are meant to be high places are the unfailing sign of an administration nearing its end
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The Independent Online

Having attained the great age of 65, I decided to take my pension out of shares, in which I discovered (with a certain amount of difficulty) it was predominantly invested, and to transfer it to government securities. I did this on the advice of my son, a metallurgist, who has, as far as I know, never owned a share in his life.

At this stage, the firm concerned – the pension provider as it is called – made no difficulties. I might have done just as well, or better, to leave my pension fund where it was, as all this happened before the implosion of the financial system. What I acquired was a certain peace of mind.

Even so, we are all of us going to be affected in one way or another. Mr Gordon Brown seems to be quite unaware of the revolution in expectations that has been brought about in the lives of those in their sixties or contemplating retirement at an even earlier age. The people whom Baroness Vadera once referred to as "old grannies" (it was about some skulduggery involving the railways) also have votes to bestow.

All the evidence now is that Mr Brown should begin to conduct negotiations with the International Monetary Fund not about the future of Britain, but of Mr Brown. The future of this country may come into it, too. But the future of the Prime Minister is what should most immediately concern us. There must be some job ready and waiting for Mr Brown, whether at the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Commission or other places where retired politicians sing for their expenses.

Mr Brown's immediate predecessor, Mr Tony Blair, has not exactly fallen on hard times. When last heard of, he seemed to be prospering mightily, giving lucrative lectures in the United States. But Mr Blair's appointment as a Middle East peace envoy – it was never entirely clear to me whose envoy he was meant to be precisely – has been superseded by that of Mr George Mitchell. His principal is Mr Barack Obama. There are all kinds of possibilities for conflict, some of which may have been realised already.

Whatever Mr Brown finds to do with himself, his is evidently an expiring government. I do not want to make heavy weather of the entrap-ment (for that is what it was) of the four Labour peers who reportedly boasted of their ability to change legislation in return for a fee. Peerages have recently and, indeed, always have been, granted for services rendered to the party in office or to its leader and his or her hangers-on.

The service can take a variety of forms: money; readiness to make way for someone else in the House of Commons; joining the Government, as with Lord Mandelson and several ministers in Mr Brown's first administration of 2007; long service and obedient conduct; even, in rare cases, merit. With the exception of the last category, the whole process is essentially corrupt. "Grasp that, dear boy," as the late Malcolm Muggeridge used to say to me in many connections, "and you grasp all."

But scandals in what are meant to be high places are the unfailing sign of a government that is nearing its end. Perhaps that is not quite right. Mr Blair survived scandals, beginning with the Bernie Ecclestone affair in his first term (which was to do with cigarette advertising and racing cars), and went on to win two

more elections. The greatest scandal of all was the Iraq War of 2003. He still won an election two year afterwards, with an economy constructed on debt.

Mr Blair was a lucky Prime Minister; Mr Brown is not. In the past few weeks, the conviction has solidified that Labour is going to lose and lose badly. A Conservative majority of 120 has even been bandied about.

More or less halfway between the first bankers' lifeboat being launched and the setting out of the second one, the wisdom of the wise was that Mr David Cameron would win, just about, but would fail to obtain a full majority. This was an astonishing feat of credulity on the part of the political classes.

Indeed, only last week, I was reading an article by a Labour-leaning commentator who maintained that Mr Cameron was bringing back Mr Kenneth Clarke into the members' enclosure because the Tory leader was frightened of losing the election. Well, that was – still is – one way of putting it, I suppose. All party leaders are frightened of losing an election, until it is over. The return of Mr Clarke is, I should have thought, more a sign of self-confidence on Mr Cameron's part than of anything else.

And yet, with the return of Mr Clarke (in precisely which future capacity remains to be seen), and with some comings and goings in the recent Tory reshuffle, the outlines of Mr Cameron's government are still enshrouded in mist. No doubt Mr Cameron is being wise, in some respects.

In 1970 Edward Heath had worked out policies for all manner of contingencies. When he won unexpectedly, he put most of those policies into reverse. Later on, he denounced Margaret Thatcher for introducing those very same notions which he had intended to implement in the first place.

On the Labour side, I would mention state pensions – endlessly debated for three whole decades – and aluminium smelters, a subject which obsessed Harold Wilson. As for the Liberal Democrats, they spend their entire time at their conferences debating deletions, full stops and commas.

But we still do not have much idea of what a Conservative government would look like. The melancholy truth is that politically interested people do not care for the personalities involved as they once used to do. In 1964, for instance, there was a lively debate about who would or ought to become Chancellor of the Exchequer (it turned out to be James Callaghan).

In 1979 the argument was whether Mrs Thatcher would retain the old guard or strike out on her own or at any rate with her own allies. To begin with, the old guard won – until the first and subsequent reshuffles.

In 1997, however, there was less interest in the composition of Mr Blair's government. There was a joint monarchy of him and Mr Brown, and that was the end of the argument. Or, rather, it was the beginning of many arguments between Mr Blair and Mr Brown, the consequences of which are with us to this day.

Despite these arguments, they supported in every way possible – flattery, honours, financial inducements of one kind of another – an economy which had the spanners of destruction all ready to fling into the works. It is no good saying the Conservatives were equally to blame, because the Conservatives have not been in government for almost 12 years.

So far Mr Brown has been remarkably successful, until the past few weeks, in claiming that the crisis was not his fault and that the Tories are the "do nothing" party. Mr Cameron would be wise not to be tempted by Mr Brown and to stick to the old Tory line: that Labour is the profligate party and that the Tories have to be brought in after an election to sort out the mess.

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