Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

How the ghost of Callaghan spooked Brown
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The Independent Online

It was the ghost of Jim Callaghan who stopped Gordon Brown ruling out a general election on the eve of Labour's conference two weeks ago. After a disastrous week since Mr Brown's delayed announcement of the great non-election, he must wish he had ignored the ghost."I could have made it earlier. Perhaps I should have made it earlier," he admitted at a press conference on Monday.

According to aides, Mr Brown feared such an announcement would mean the Labour conference being dominated by comparisons between him and the Labour Prime Minister who, in 1978, made his biggest mistake by delaying an election. After a winter of industrial discontent, Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 poll and Labour spent 18 years in the wilderness. Mr Brown has good reason to remember it: he lost narrowly in Edinburgh South to the Tory grandee Michael Ancram. If he had won, as he might have done in a 1978 election, he would have entered parliament five years earlier than Tony Blair, and so might well have landed the Labour leadership in 1994.

There may be a terrible irony in Mr Brown's current predicament. Could his determination to avoid accusations of "doing a Callaghan" during Labour's conference now mean that he suffers the same fate as Lord Callaghan? The potential parallels are striking: a former chancellor and long-serving cabinet minister finally makes it to No 10 two years after a general election but becomes a footnote in the pages of history devoted to his more successful predecessor.

Harold Wilson won four elections and was Prime Minister for eight years. Tony Blair won three elections and served for 10 years.

Such a scenario looks possible for many Labour MPs this weekend. The anxiety on the Labour benches as David Cameron mauled Mr Brown at PMQ was palpable. Normally loyal ministers are in despair over Mr Brown's handling of the non-election. "An utter disaster, a completely self- inflicted wound," moaned one.

Mr Cameron has tipped the see-saw from rock bottom to riding high in just two weeks. He has won over many doubters in his own ranks – an important development ensuring stronger support in the 18-month election battle which has begun. The row over Tory policy on grammar schools exposed Mr Cameron's lack of authority inside his party, forcing a messy retreat.

Mr Brown miscalculated the downside of calling off an election at the last minute and suffered further embarrassment when Tuesday's tax and spending statement by Alistair Darling had to be devoted to stealing Tory tax policies on inheritance, non-domiciles and air travel. The comprehensive spending review had long been billed by Brownites as a 10-year vision for the second phase of New Labour. It looked nothing of the sort.

The headlines were supposed to be about our old friend "schools 'n' hospitals". Instead, Mr Brown had to clear away the Tory undergrowth, outmanoeuvred by an Opposition more in tune with the public mood on tax.

What will Mr Brown do? The one thing Mr Cameron can't – run the country. What he won't do is panic, hoping to leave that to the Liberal Democrats, a wish that could be granted. With the Brown-Cameron struggle in the spotlight, the third party is off the radar, leaving Sir Menzies Campbell exposed now the main reason for not deposing him – an imminent election – has gone.

Nor will Mr Brown embark on a Blair-style relaunch, which would only serve to draw attention to his problems. He will plough on, hoping over time to show the public what he did in his first 100 days – solid, strong, if unspectacular, government, without spin. It won't be easy.

The media pendulum has swung, and rarely stops in the middle today. A leader is either hero or zero, though the real picture is usually more complicated. The slightest evidence of "Brown spin" will be magnified, though all parties do it. There is no crisis for Mr Brown – yet.

Arguably, after their fantastic fortnight, the Tories should be more than three points ahead in the polls.

The danger for Mr Brown is that the media's exaggerated portrayal of his troubles becomes the reality. It could happen. In calling off the election, he set himself the huge task of using the next period to show the public his vision for the future. Allies say he now has the space in which to " redefine the progressive project".

Having rejected the idea of fighting an election on "competence" this year, Mr Brown cannot do so in 2009. It will have to be based on performance and a forward prospectus. But that will need to be a lot better than the blurred 10-year vision set out this week.

So what should he do now?

* John Kampfner, Editor, New Statesman

The cause of Gordon Brown's month of madness was not dithering over a snap election, but more fundamentally – new Labour's perpetual obsession with the Conservatives.

* Neal Lawson, Chair, Compass

The government urgently needs a narrative around the politics of equality and democracy. Without such a lodestar the next 18 months will degenerate into opportunism.

* Carey Oppenheim, Co-Director of IPPR

It was the right decision not to have an election. We now need to get back to proper policy not playing politics. Brown definitely has a vision but it he is not getting it across.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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