Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

John Major's mistake was trying to do too much. Gordon Brown must learn from it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the egg that did it. During a round of television interviews, Gordon Brown worked hard to empathise with the public's anxiety over the economy. He tried to stop himself firing his machine gun of statistics about how well Britain is doing and adopted new language.

"The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is think about what we can do to help the home-owner, the young couple hoping to get a house for the first time, to protect pensioners," he said. It wasn't brilliant, but it was an improvement.

But the egg showed that a lot more work is required for the Prime Minister to connect with the voters. Mr Brown looked startled when Tom Bradby, political editor of ITV News, held it up during his Downing Street interview. He had his own statistics: the price of eggs had risen 40 per cent in the past year, pasta was up 80 per cent, chicken 77 per cent. "What people want to know is what you as Prime Minister are trying to do to help them deal with these basic day-to-day things," Mr Bradby said.

Mr Brown's default mechanism failed him. His answer was about global food prices and the shortage of food around the world – critical issues, sure enough, but not what ITV viewers wanted to hear.

The interview explained why Labour MPs are so jittery about their leader and their own prospects. Politicians are a much-maligned bunch but the fractious mood of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is a healthy sign that democracy is alive and kicking – in this case, kicking the Prime Minister.

MPs return to Westminster on Monday after a two-week recess which many have spent knocking on doors ahead of the 1 May local elections. Even cabinet ministers admit privately that Mr Brown's decision to scrap the 10p in the pound lower rate of income tax is hurting Labour. So are post office closures. Add in the wider concerns about the economy, mortgage payments and rising prices and you have a toxic mix. As Tony Blair often said: "The PLP follows the public." This is no bad thing. Frank Field, who is leading the revolt over the tax shake-up, has an interesting take on how the PLP has changed since he entered Parliament in 1979. Many Labour MPs, not used to being behind in the opinion polls, worry about their job prospects if they lose their seats because they never had another one before entering politics. He told me: "They won't just loyally go over a cliff with nowhere to land. I don't think they will willingly see their seats sacrificed." With MPs, peers and even some ministers now prepared to speak out, the stakes for Mr Brown could not be higher. It's not just about the future of the tax policy he announced in his last Budget. It is now about his own future.

I don't believe he will be forced out before the next general election. But the darkening mood on the Labour benches means he could be. If a leader loses the confidence of his MPs, it spreads to the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet and he or she is finished. Like Margaret Thatcher.

We are not there yet. But Mr Brown has much to do. In the past week, his government has looked frayed at the edge, like an administration that has been around for 10 years rather than 10 months – a disaster for a man who wanted to be "the change" when he succeeded Mr Blair.

How can he recover? It's not only a matter of communications, of doing "up close and personal" in the way that Mr Blair could and David Cameron can – though that would help. It's also about policy and strategy. Mr Brown needs to set the political agenda – by what he does, not what he says. Mr Cameron can say, but Mr Brown can do.

The last thing the Prime Minister needs is a blizzard of policy initiatives. He should do fewer things and focus on getting them right.

The Prime Minister will have to make a tactical retreat over the 10p tax rate. And quickly, before the local elections. His dilemma is that a U-turn would only reinforce the impression that he is weak. So he may have to tweak the decision at the margins, by promising to compensate some of the 5.3 million losers, while insisting that the policy remains intact.

He needs five big things on bread-and-butter issues, mainly on the economy, not 20 micro announcements that sink without trace. A burst of frenetic activity will only risk a downward spiral. Sometimes, the harder you try in politics, the worse it looks – and gets. Like John Major.

Mr Brown's plans include constitutional changes such as reform of the House of Lords and party funding and a Bill of Rights to pursue his "Britishness" agenda. These are all worthy and should be addressed in the medium or long term. But they are not going to help Mr Brown solve his mounting immediate problems. After all, what have they got to do with the price of eggs?