Michael Brown: Brown risks playing straight into Tory hands

There are members of the Opposition who hope that the PM pushes ahead with policies his party doesn't like

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Game over or game on? That is the question politicians are asking of Gordon Brown as he faces the coming year. Many are suggesting that the game is already up, with the Prime Minister hunkering down for the long haul until the spring of 2010 and the inevitable Callaghan-style limp to inevitable defeat. How it has come to this when, just 12 short weeks ago, he was riding high in the polls with the doubts over David Cameron's Tory leadership exercising most commentators will be the defining conundrum of 2007.

Reports last weekend suggested that many of the Labour MPs who represent London and southern constituencies are contemplating their future beyond Westminster. I know the feeling only too well. For at least three years before the 1997 election, many incumbent Tory MPs myself included were known as the "walking dead". Whatever we did, we knew we would need to seek alternative employment yet we could make no public expression of our availability on the employment market.

The debilitating effects of defending the indefensible led many to conclude that they should publicly disassociate themselves from unpopular government decisions. In the vain hope that by rebelling over Europe and rail privatisation in the division lobbies they might have insulated themselves from defeat at the subsequent general election poll, Tory backbenchers merely added to the impression of a divided government. But even such actions failed to prevent most Maastricht rebels being swept away in the 1997 avalanche. I suspect the same thought processes are operating among Labour MPs over such issues as identity cards, and the time-limit for holding terror suspects without charge.

If the government is defeated on these issues, then, paradoxically, Mr Brown could be saved from himself. There are occasions when defeats for governments are their saviours. In the 1980s the bill to allow Sunday trading was ahead of its time. In spite of a commitment in the 1983 Tory election manifesto, the bill was defeated at the second reading, and for the next decade was removed from the political agenda as a divisive party issue. Backbenchers felt they had changed their government's mind and Margaret Thatcher had them to thank for removing a running sore that threatened to split the Tory Party. Would that the same thing had happened over the poll tax.

For their part, Labour strategists did not actually want to defeat the poll tax legislation in Parliament they could see how damaging it would prove once it was on the statute book. And there are some Tories today who are secretly hoping that Mr Brown pushes ahead with measures unpopular in the Labour Party so that the fox is not shot by the time of the election. If, for example, the Tories are denied the manifesto opportunity of abolishing identity cards because Mr Brown might finally see sense in abandoning the project they will lose an easy campaign weapon in their election armoury.

Fortunately for the Tories, it looks as though Mr Brown, having initially dropped baggage such as super-casinos and the re-classification of cannabis, is determined to bumble on with these bone-headed proposals. This will also suit the Liberal Democrats while doing nothing to enhance Mr Brown's reputation for being "tough on terror".

Of course predicting the political events of the year ahead is a mug's game. I sometimes think that every political columnist should submit New Year's Day articles to public inspection by their readers 12 months later in much the same way that my fellow columnist, Steve Richards, plays back to GMTV viewers every December the predictions that Tony Howard, Polly Toynbee and myself made on his Sunday programme the previous year.

For the record, I said then that Ming Campbell would still be Lib Dem leader and that Gordon Brown should but would not hold a snap election. For this new year I have predicted that Alistair Darling will not be Chancellor on New Year's Day 2009. Mr Darling will only have bad news to report every time he appears either in the Commons or on television and will become associated in the public mind with gloom and doom much as Norman Lamont did in 1992/3.

Mr Brown made the political weather in the early weeks of his premiership. But the frank acknowledgement by Jack Straw that David Cameron is now successfully appealing to "promiscuous voters" is an admission that Mr Cameron himself is able to make the political weather. The Prime Minister stressed "change" in his new year message but the moment when this resonated with the public has passed. Being the "change" without either a leadership election or a general election means that any it will not now be noticed by the public.

The promise that there would be an end to spin and a return to parliamentary and cabinet government does not yet appear to have been matched by reality. Ministers such as Hazel Blears and Ruth Kelly still appear on television and radio interviews telling viewers that black is white in much the way that they did during the worst excesses of Blairite gobbledygook.

Of course now that Mr Cameron has to be taken seriously as the possible dare we say probable? next Prime Minister he will have to submit himself to greater scrutiny. Probably no one was more surprised than Mr Cameron by the remarkably favourable public reception given to his shadow chancellor George Osborne's proposals to reduce inheritance tax. These proposals were revealed in the wake of the panic that engulfed the Tories when they were facing a possible snap election. Now Mr Osborne needs to recognise the effect that tax cuts have with the public and sell the message that, with personal belt-tightening now understood by voters, government belt-tightening is a message more easily saleable. This will get him off the hook of matching Labour's expenditure plans and create space for further Tory tax initiatives. His window of opportunity lies in the fact that his current pledge to match Labour's plans lasts for three years. But an election in 2010 allows the promise to be abandoned without loss of face or Labour accusations of a policy u-turn.

2008 will be marked by a flurry of political turmoil in the aftermath of the May local elections and the London mayoral contest between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. That these two mavericks hold the key to the bigger political picture is testimony to that old adage that ultimately it is events that will determine whether it is game over or game on for the Prime Minister.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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