Michael Brown: It's not just about competence, it's about perception

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It was shortly after John Smith, the late Leader of the Labour Party – when in opposition to John Major in 1993 – made a devastating Commons speech that I first got jittery about my future prospects of holding my own Cleethorpes seat.

I was a junior government whip and we had already recently suffered the initial fallout from the Black Wednesday ERM debacle. Mr Smith was enjoying himself with cheap jibes about the inability to start the Grand National and houses that were falling into the sea on the Yorkshire coast. Neither of these embarrassments – both had been front-page tabloid news stories – had anything to do with individual ministerial competence, let alone the Government. But Mr Smith's use of the incidents served as metaphors for the disastrous state of the Tory government. Yet it was only a few months earlier that Mr Major had, against expectations, secured a fourth Tory term.

The weekend after Mr Smith's speech I recall a good, candid constituency friend calling on me at my surgery. He was suffering the consequences of negative equity and, for all my reassurances that the Government's exit from the ERM would lead to lower interest rates and an economic recovery, he was not impressed. "Michael, in the past when you opened your mouth words came out, but now when you speak, I hear nothing but see vomit." He was typically plain-speaking and I did not resent his comments. That was the point I knew the Tory government and I were finished. We had lost our reputation for competence.

Governments can make wrong policy decisions – the poll tax, the Iraq war – yet, so long as their reputation for competence is maintained, they can still triumph at the subsequent election. I even held my Cleethorpes seat in 1992 in the depths of a recession. But once that reputation is lost, it cannot be restored.

For all the justified attacks on government spin, scandals and lies, Mr Blair and Mr Brown were always able to base their appeal to voters on Labour competence against Tory incompetence. During the recent summer recess, Mr Brown impressed me and strengthened his own reputation for competence by his deft handling of foot and mouth. But imagine if that crisis had not occurred then but was, instead, to erupt next week. The prism through which we largely overlooked the fact that the disease was caused by the Government's own facility at Purbright, enabled Mr Brown to reinforce his reputation in the eyes of the public. But voters would now view the same event, even similarly competently handled, in an entirely negative context.

It is too early to make a definitive judgement on whether we have arrived at a John Major "Black Wednesday" moment, but we have certainly got to a point where ministerial reassurances are no longer believed. Alistair Darling has only to say, once more that Northern Rock depositors' money is entirely safe before yet further queues outside the bank's branches will reappear. On Tuesday he implied there was no need to take any immediate action regarding bank account passwords. That was enough to ensure banks were yesterday inundated with requests to change passwords. It reminds me of Tory agriculture ministers' claims that "British beef is safe to eat" before the link between BSE and CJD added to the litany of disasters that beset the Major government.

Mr Darling is a "safe pair of hands" and his previous reputation as a fire fighter at Work and Pensions, Transport and Trade and Industry justified his promotion to the Treasury. There is no evidence that he has been personally culpable. But every time there is now a Treasury issue, its political impact will have a disproportionate and adverse effect on the Government's fortunes. There may be no reason for Mr Darling to consider his position. But the political truth for Labour is that the Chancellor's constant public presence will, albeit unfairly, tarnish the Government in the same way Norman Lamont's badger-like appearance did for the Tories.

And this is where the Tory tactic in stopping short of demanding Mr Darling's resignation is so clever. His Commons performances these past few weeks mean that the pollsters' question "Do you trust Gordon and Alistair rather than Cameron and Osborne if the economy has a bumpy ride?" is no longer likely to be answered in the affirmative.

Mr Osborne knows that a wounded Mr Darling remaining in his post is more electorally useful to the Tories than a new Chancellor. And if the next election is lost for Labour, this may turn out to be the week whenex-Labour MPs will look back and say to themselves "that was the moment when our fate was mortally sealed".

mrbrown@talk.talk.net

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