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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas