Matthew Norman: Another step on the road to disaster

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The Independent Online

In the dwindling life of a government in the purely palliative stage of terminal disease, Tom Lehrer moments come thick and fast. Satire has died countless times since Henry Kissinger went to Stockholm to collect a peace prize brought to us in association with the Acme Napalm Company, and the latest clog-popping occurred on Wednesday's Newsnight.

For several reasons, this cannot have been much fun for Gordon Brown as he examined the snap reaction to his surrender over the scrapping of the 10p tax band. Yvette Cooper was riotously hopeless, repeatedly refusing to admit to having no idea about the cost of the concessions, how many people they will help, or whether they will all be backdated to April as rebel leader Frank Field said the Prime Minister had assured him they would.

Perhaps this sort of thing isn't really her bag, what with her only being Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but she blustered and blethered like Mrs Bottomley in the dog days of the Major administration that seems ever more unmistakably the template for Labour's present and near future.

Lest Yvette's cluelessness wasn't merriment enough, also present was Vince Cable pouring his acidic contempt on Gordon's gangrenous wound, once again imbuing the Liberal Democrat's selection of Nick Clegg with a tragicomic air. And even that wasn't the worst of it. By no means. The worst of it, and the leading satiricidal moment of recent years, came from George Osborne.

However closely he may resemble Oofy Prosser taking a half-time breather at the Drone's before the evening's bread roll-throwing contest resumes, Little Georgie grows into his role as adeptly as David Cameron matures into his, and performed with restrained excellence. What in the name of all the saints has it come to, you wondered in astonishment, when the public school-educated Tory son of a 17th baronet, and heir to a large fortune, goes on telly to defend the poor from a Labour government without making you feel nauseous?

What it had come to, in fact, was the latest staging post on the road to Gordon's general election disaster, even if this wasn't his Black Wednesday. No tabloid editor replicated Kelvin McKenzie's Wildean thrust by pouring a large bucket of anything over his head yesterday, the media acknowledging his survivalist sense in withdrawing from the precipice of a fatal Commons defeat as much as recording this as the latest in an apparently ceaseless sequence of humiliations.

But it was a catastrophe because it clarified how Gordon has already become, in less than a year, as pitiable a captive of his backbench critics as ever John Major was. Despite a healthy majority in the mid-60s, where Major's was down to single figures, he now has approximately a six times greater chance of winning gymnastics gold in Beijing on the asymmetric bars than of getting his nonsensical 42-day detention period on to the statute book. From this day forth Gordon is a legislative quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down and reliant on uncaring backbench carers for the most basic of his parliamentary needs.

There are those who assume he must have been paralysed from the neck up to wish to penalise millions of the lowest earning workers to subsidise a tax break for the better off, chief among them being the unnerving figure of Frank Field. With his sallow complexion, concave cheeks and faintly deranged ocular intensity, Mr Field brings to mind a medieval monk lurking in Vatican cloisters plotting all sorts of holy terror in the name of the Father. Had fate taken a different path, he might have found work as an extra on The Da Vinci Code or a minor part on stage in Don Carlos. Or even in a Tory cabinet.

In so many regards is the Grand Inquisitor of the Wirral in the mainstream of Conservative thinking (he was a party member long before he joined Labour) that one suspects he'd have crossed the Commons' floor long ago if he represented a less tribally Labour area than Birkenhead. He is not at all keen on the EU, for example, and also agrees with his friend Margaret Thatcher about encouraging the poor to raise themselves by those mythical bootstraps, rather than allowing a monolithic welfare state to keep them in perceived subjugation.

It was to address this that Mr Tony Blair brought him into his first government "to think the unthinkable" about reforming benefits. But to Gordon and Harriet Harman, Mr Field's boss at Social Security, his thoughts were so unthinkable that they neutralised him absolutely. A year later he was gone, and he has since been arguably Gordon's most remorseless critic (although not the most poisonous; not while Charles Clarke and vats of affordable claret share the planet), so No 10 may be tempted to write off this tax rate triumph as a delectable dish eaten cold.

The trouble with the vengeance theory is that, whatever the personal animus, Mr Field's expertise cannot be denied. An erstwhile director of the Child Poverty Action Group, he actually founded the Low Pay Unit. Irony of plus ça change ironies, his report about how the poor had become poorer under Harold Wilson is credited with helping bring about Labour's election defeat in 1970.

No one knows more about this area than Frank Field, and the fact that Brown saw fit to present him with so gapingly open a goal might almost be read as a subconscious suicide attempt ... the loose equivalent of Obama handing Hillary the mobile number of a reliable Chicago hitman, his itinerary in Indiana and the date he plans to give his secret service people an evening off.

Gordon isn't about to end his own political life, however, and Labour MPs still lack their rivals' rapacious appetite for euthanasia. So on and on and on it will go, the arrogance and the incompetence, the opportunism laughably disguised in the ragged clothes of altruism, the pathetic U-turns spun as "I'm listening", the relaunches that go glug-glug-gone before the boat has cleared dock, the denials that he possesses a reverse gear instantly followed by the illumination of reverse lights, the tiny residue of authority dribbling into the gutter, all the way to the early summer of 2010 when electoral law will prevent even Gordon from delaying any longer.

Perhaps with hindsight this will seem a Pyrrhic victory. Maybe one day Mr Field will reflect from the Opposition benches on whether the wisest thing, for Gordon and the party, would have been to refuse those concessions – justifiably so when the Treasury has no idea what precisely they are – and put the PM to the sword in next week's vote.

Cruel to be kind crudely summarises Frank Field's sincere belief about how best to man-age the welfare state. Pity he couldn't extend the principle to putting this wretched Prime Minister out of his, and our, misery.

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