Michael Brown: It's far worse for Brown than it was for Major

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The Independent Online

The Labour peer Lord Desai recently compared Gordon Brown's style to "porridge – maybe haggis". The question is whether the Prime Minister is now toast. With Frank Field still – a decade on – "thinking the unthinkable", albeit now with apologies, the mutterings are turning to the once unthinkable option of consigning Mr Brown to the dustbin of history without even giving him the opportunity of facing the electorate.

Since the Second World War, three unelected prime ministers – Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and John Major – went on to win the subsequent general election. Two others, Sir Alec Douglas Home and James Callaghan, were defeated at the polls when they finally faced the voters. But all were either re-appointed or dismissed by the voters.

So surely it is inconceivable that Mr Brown could complete his premiership without the voters having had a chance to re-elect or sack him. But the fact that Westminster tearoom tittle-tattle has reached such a pitch is an indication of just how defeatist the Parliamentary Labour Party has become.

The current climate reminds me of the circumstances that led to the Tory demoralisation between the local elections of 1995 and the eventual electoral debacle in 1997, which led to my own defeat. But as I look in the rear-view mirror, the circumstances for the present Prime Minister are infinitely worse than they were for John Major's government, for three reasons.

First, Mr Major had at least secured his own mandate in 1992, amassing a record 14 million votes for the Tory party – higher than Margaret Thatcher achieved in her three successful general elections. We also tend to forget the extent of the recovery of the Tories during Mr Major's own unelected period between November 1990 and April 1992. After the first Gulf War in early 1991, he refused pressure for a "khaki election", but his personal poll ratings ran significantly ahead of his party and his opposition rivals.

Second, in June 1995, Major faced up to his detractors and voluntarily submitted himself to the judgement of his parliamentary colleagues. Major's call to "back me or sack me" was criticised by many, but without it he may have been subjected to continuing speculation about whether he would survive to lead the Tories at the subsequent election.

Tory MPs were, nevertheless, given an opportunity to change the leader. The fact that Michael Portillo and other potential rivals, except John Redwood, bottled their chances was ultimately their affair. But in their defence, they were concerned about ousting a second Tory leader who had been voted for by the people at the previous general election in 1992. The 1995 leadership election ensured that, whatever else happened in the remaining two years, Major ended further talk of a new Tory leader.

Third, for all the continuing trials and tribulations that re-surfaced during 1996, the Major government presided over a substantial recovery of the British economy. In terms of economic management, history will judge the period 1993-97 under the chancellorship of Kenneth Clarke as one of the most responsible of modern times. Economic growth, low inflation, falling mortgage rates and firm control over public expenditure led to circumstances that Labour MPs can only envy when they have their date with destiny and the voters in two years' time.

Contrast the economic outlook I faced seeking re-election in 1997 with that of my Labour successor in two years' time. Labour's election theme "Things can only get better" was actually a more appropriate tune for the Tory economic record, whereas between now and polling day in 2010 the economy will only get worse. Hamish McRea, writing on these pages, suggests that 2009 will be the really difficult year for the economy. On the basis of yesterday's inflation figures, unlike in the run-up to the 1997 election, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

But it is the Government's obsession with "the long-term solutions" that so jars with Labour voters' current everyday experiences. As she chirruped away on The World at One yesterday, Hazel Blears' Panglossian view that all would eventually be well merely risked bringing voters' blood to the boil as they face double-digit inflation for food, petrol, mortgages and energy bills.

The Prime Minister's promise to listen has finally resulted in yesterday's announcement by the Chancellor to increase, by £600, the personal allowance for basic-rate taxpayers, to compensate for the abolition of the 10p tax rate. But, as in 1997, it is no longer a question of whether ministers are listening – it's the voters who are no longer listening.