Andrew Grice: A Day in Politics

PM was caught trying to be all things to all men
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The Independent Online

On his flight to the US last July, Gordon Brown was jokingly asked whether he was disappointed that he was only 16 points ahead of the Conservatives in the latest opinion poll. Only 10 months on, he must explain why Labour came 20 points behind the Tories in the local elections.

In my 25 years at Westminster, I have never seen such a spectacular fall. It seems fanciful to think Mr Brown can lead Labour to victory at the next general election. My guess is the chances have just fallen from about 20 per cent to 10 per cent. He does not have to hold a general election for two years but the danger is that he will soon pass the point of no return.

Yet those dancing on his political grave may be a little premature. David Cameron was right yesterday to guard against complacency in Tory ranks. As more voters regard Labour as a busted flush, the Tories must seize their moment in the spotlight. They need to be less fuzzy on their key policies to pass the government-in-waiting test.

Strange as it may seem, the task facing Mr Brown is similar. That is quite an indictment for someone with the power of government already in his hands.

When Labour MPs complain they don't really know what the Government stands for, how can the poor bloody voters be expected to?

Mr Brown has been trying too hard to do too much. There's no shortage of policies being churned out but the public can't see what the blizzard of announcements adds up to.

On Radio Four's Today this week, he tried to show he understood the problems facing ordinary people. But he still pumped out too many mixed messages instead of one or two main ones. "I stopped counting after seven," one Labour MP told me.

Mr Brown needs to focus on the big things – the economy and the "opportunity for all" agenda in which he passionately believes – rather than micro-managing every decision by the junior minister for paperclips. Farcically, Mr Brown this week vetoed a "pay rise" for prisoners that had already been announced by the Ministry of Justice. He probably thought his injury-time intervention would impress the Daily Mail and The Sun.

That goes to the heart of his dilemma: in trying to please everyone, he often pleases no one, and looks as if he can't make up his mind. The best advice he will get is from those allies telling him to simply be himself, and to stop pretending to be all things to all men. They know the Mail and The Sun will ditch him if they believe he's going to lose the election.

Mr Brown finds it hard to say sorry. People would respect him more if he did. He finally admitted to mistakes over his abolition of the 10p bottom rate of income tax, an Exocet missile targeted at Labour's natural working class supporters which also offended the better off. But his half-apology was grudging and he was bounced into it by Jack Straw. He has started to talk about mortgages and food prices, but only recently and belatedly. Mr Cameron, who has been banging on about how much it costs to fill up his car for months, thinks that Mr Brown "doesn't get" the cost of living problem.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister tried to deploy new language and sound contrite. Unwisely giving his reaction to the election disaster from the Downing Street bunker rather than the real world, he didn't even mention the 10p tax fiasco. Some senior Labour figures think he's still in denial about it because it's too close to home. There has been some silly talk by ultra Brownites that their Blairite counterparts are undermining Mr Brown. The truth is that he has undermined himself, especially on the 10p tax rate.

Despite his mistakes, the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs are desperate for Mr Brown to succeed. As yet, there is no plot to oust him, not least because there is no obvious alternative or guarantee that anyone else would do better after a panic leadership change.

The Brown camp believe the one issue that may rescue him is the one now doing the damage – the economy. They claim the Tories have "bet the farm" on Britain being hit as hard as its competitors by the global credit crunch. So if the country emerges stronger than its rivals, they hope voters will reward Mr Brown for it.

Perhaps. But voters don't usually say thank you. They pocket the good news and grumble about the bad. Mr Brown has got to lay out his mission and get on with it, before it really is too late.

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