Andrew Grice: No matter how bad it gets, Brown escapes the blame

Inside Politics: “Fears about a 2009 election have been enhanced by a slimline Queen’s Speech”
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The Independent Online

Who will get the blame for the recession? It could be the most important question in British politics, and might decide the next general election. The Conservative Party seems to be betting the farm on Gordon Brown being blamed and insists he will deserve it. But some Tory MPs are worried by Mr Brown's attack on David Cameron as the, "do-nothing leader of a do-nothing party".

The message from the Tory high command is that the public will realise the "Brown borrowing binge" is irresponsible and turn against a man now posing as an international superhero as recession bites next year. But will the voters play the blame game in the way the Tories hope? I have some bad news for them. The British Election Study at Essex University has found that only 23 per cent of people hold Mr Brown personally responsible for the economic crisis. Seventy per cent blame US banks and 61 per cent UK banks, while 45 per cent think Mr Brown has done a good job in the crisis.

"These results seem to show that the Prime Minister is, to a large extent, insulated from the blame and that people believe if anyone can help the country through the crisis, it's him," said Paul Whiteley, a professor of government at Essex. "If the Conservatives are to have an impact on the debate and arrest their decline in the polls, David Cameron needs a narrative which explains how they would get out of the crisis and what they would do differently from the Government. Up to this point, their narrative has been almost wholly negative and essentially reactive."

The Tories would quibble with the last point. In the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Cameron swatted the Labour backbencher Rob Marris by listing five Tory policies for the recession: a two-year freeze on council tax; allowing small firms to pay bills late; a cut in national insurance for very small companies; a £3bn jobs plan to get people off the dole; and a government-backed insurance scheme to get banks lending to small firms.

It is true that public opinion may look very different in six months. But the Tory strategy is high risk and leaves them in the awkward position of opposing action such as the Government's £20bn fiscal stimulus. They look isolated at home and abroad. They can't say they want the Government's measures to fail but they do and sometimes it shows.

Privately, Tories fret about a mid-recession 2009 election, with the Prime Minister seeking a "doctor's mandate" to complete the patient's recovery. Their fears have been enhanced by a slimline Queen's Speech this week, which gave the impression of a party preparing for an election. Not true, Cabinet ministers insist: the aim was to avoid backbench rebellions and Mr Brown is not thinking about an election. They have to say that, don't they? He got into such a pickle last time he allowed election speculation to run that he'll be telling us he's only thinking about the economy even if we get to May 2010.

Whenever the election comes, Labour knows it needs to offer more than: "we did everything we could to limit the impact of the recession". Elections are about the future, so its pitch will also include a raft of measures to ensure the recovery is quicker and stronger. Ed Miliband reveal-ed Labour's mission statement at a Progress conference last weekend: "Getting people through the downturn and showing we have the right priorities for the upturn." The "boldness and fairness" which have given it a bounce in the opinion polls must last, he said. The Energy and Climate Change Secretary argued that Labour could avoid being the party that "can win the war but will lose the peace." He said Churchill lost the 1945 election because the " ideological tide" shifted away from him."People wanted to be sure that never again would we go back to the 1930s of an inadequate welfare state and a government that stood aside."

Mr Miliband may or may not be right. But Mr Cameron should take his theory seriously. Until recently, the Tories were talking up a book called Nudge by the American academics Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, about "nudging" people to change their behaviour, instead of relying on top-down, bloated government. It might be right for good economic times but,in bad times a nudge is surely not enough.