Sunday 18 May 2008
Alan Watkins: The PM is no longer on the people's side
A Labour MP may feel the need to apologise to Gordon Brown, but the electors of Crewe and Nantwich share no such obligation
A mere 10 months have gone by since last summer's by-elections. These contests marked the high point of Mr Gordon Brown's premiership. Since then, the precious fluid has been draining away, so that now there is hardly anything left in the tank. I was one of only two practitioners of this strange trade to pick up the signs. The other was, I think, Lord Rees-Mogg in The Times. There may have been others. If so, I apologise.
But the consensus among the commentators was that, as Mr Trevor Kavanagh put it in The Sun, Mr Brown was going to "win – and win big". These by-elections, particularly the one in Ealing Southall, where the Tories came third, consolidated the call for a general election. As another columnist, Ms Jackie Ashley in The Guardian, expressed the matter: "Go for it, Gordon."
It is certainly arguable that, in October or even November last year, Mr Brown missed the bus – as Neville Chamberlain had earlier accused Adolf Hitler of doing when he neglected to invade these shores early in the war. It is, however, equally plausible to argue that Mr Brown would nevertheless have lost the election completely or, at least, lost his outright majority.
This latter outcome now sounds an unimaginable luxury. At the time, the by-election results underestimated the extent of the Conservative recovery and exaggerated the beneficent effects of Mr Brown's arrival. Rain, floods, foot-and-mouth, bombs going off all over the place: for some extraordinary reason, the surly Scot was seen as the saviour of the nation.
The misinterpretation of the by-election results derived from the disinclination – maybe the inability – of the political class to do simple sums as a guide to the state of public opinion. Thus the Crewe and Nantwich by-election will be assessed by the Government's ability to hang on to the seat. You can leave the percentages at home. Win or lose: that is the way in which the politicians commonly judge these matters.
Sometimes a by-election or a clutch of them can point to a trend; sometimes not. An upset, such as the loss of Crewe would be, almost always produces consequences of some kind. Harold Macmillan lost the Orpington by-election to the Liberals in March 1962 and sacked a third of his Cabinet in July: but the Liberal representation rose only from six to nine at the subsequent general election.
To parachute Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody's daughter Tamsin into her late mother's old seat suggests a measure of panic. I have nothing against the candidate, who was a member of the Welsh Assembly. I possessed a wary respect – that, I think, is the appropriate phrase – for her mother. But Labour has never been wholly at ease with family successions quite as the Conservatives have been.
Roy Jenkins was narrowly rejected as his late father's successor in Pontypool after the war in favour of another local man. However, the late Robert Cryer's widow Ann, succeeded him in Keighley. There is no rule about these things.
Certainly the Labour candidate comes from a political family. Both her parents were Labour MPs. Her maternal grandmother was active in local government and, as a Labour life peer, in the House of Lords; her maternal grandfather, Morgan Phillips, was the most powerful general secretary of the Labour party of the past 60 years.
Morgan Phillips liked a drink after work, or several, perhaps at lunchtime as well. He would drink with his chums, including several industrial correspondents, at the Marquis of Granby pub in Smith Square, near Transport House. Gwyneth was in those days suffering ill health. In her bed or on the sofa, she would be visited regularly by her friends in Fulham. At eight o'clock or thereabouts the lock would click, the door slam and her father cry out loudly to the young visitors: "Get out of my house," with expletives added. It must have been quite upsetting for her.
Mr Edward Timpson, the Conservative candidate, does not come from a political family, as far as we know. Rather his nearest and dearest specialise in shoe repairs and in people who have lost their keys or (for such is the inevitable nature of the locksmith's trade) are even involved in more questionable activities.
For some reason best known to Labour, the party organisers have chosen to depict Mr Timpson as a tremendous toff. They have even got some put-upon party worker to dress up in a morning coat with top hat to follow the candidate around. Mr Frank Dobson, who was working away in the Labour interest, claimed on Newsnight that Mr Timpson was an Etonian; he had to be corrected by the programme's reporter, who pointed out that he had been to Uppingham, actually. Have we all gone mad?
This marks a lengthy period of insanity on the part of The Guardian. At least we must all devoutly hope that it is at an end. It began with the attempt to run Mr Ken Livingstone as mayor of London and to depreciate Mr Boris Johnson along the way. It continued with serious columnists who specialised in what the libel lawyers call vulgar abuse.
Last week Private Eye produced a lengthy list of journalists on the paper who had themselves been educated privately. It omitted to name the estimable Mr Jonathan Steele, an Etonian; not to mention the scarcely less admirable Mr Alexander Chancellor. The Daily Mirror has been pursuing the same line, with even less profit. For while the readers of The Guardian tend to respond with hostility, or so I am told, the readers of the Mirror do not have any idea of what the paper are talking about.
This is the position in which Mr Brown finds himself. He is no longer on the side of the people. His preoccupations are no longer theirs. Last week, for instance, he attempted to anticipate the Queen's Speech in the autumn. There was not a single idea that was memorable – nothing about which a voter could answer the question: now what was that all about?
The very notion of a Queen's Speech is, in any case, a ragbag of proposals. That is its nature. It is inevitable. The theme, if it has one, is detached by others after the event. Why, then, should Mr Brown try to replicate tedium? It is bad enough having to listen to the speech in November without having to sit through a rehearsal, minus the funny dressing-up, in May.
Everyone has forgotten, as far as I can see, that Mr Brown went through virtually the same performance after he became Prime Minister last year. What stays in the memory is that Mr Brown tried to make a lot of poor people even poorer and has remedied the position only partially by borrowing more money.
This is the second occasion on which the Chancellor, Mr Alistair Darling, was wheeled on to the stage to try to put matters right. The first occasion occurred immediately after the Conservatives had proposed the changes in inheritance tax and other alterations in the tax system. Mr Frank Field may want to apologise, but the citizens of Crewe have no immediate need.
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