Steve Richards: Brown's biggest problem is not the rash of recent disasters, but his summer honeymoon

The PM must win back those whowork in the public services – and those who pay for them
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Disparate crises continue to erupt over Gordon Brown. Yesterday, the Labour Party's general secretary resigned. Those two CDs are still missing and Northern Rock is not yet sold. Defied former military leaders fume after an onslaught that would have been condemned in the media if it had come from trade union leaders calling for more public spending. No wonder today's poll in The Independent is so bad for Labour.

Yet it was always going to be difficult for Gordon Brown. By far the biggest problem for him now is not these unrelated and fleeting crises, but his early intoxicating success in the summer. In the face of some heavy rain, or a diseased cow, Mr Brown uttered some calm words and his poll rating soared. Those early weeks made the transition from one leader to another look too easy and so the sudden gloomy depths seem more peculiar now. It was those early weeks that were odd, not the more challenging situation which Brown and his government face now. His inheritance was a field of potentially explosive landmines. The current crises for which he has little responsibility have triggered explosions, but the eruptions were inevitable in such volatile circumstances.

In a recently published anthology of essays, Blair's Britain, the authoritative political analyst, John Curtice, argues that voters moved to the right under Mr Blair. Curtice cites a range of evidence before concluding: "Having encouraged the nation's values to move in a more conservative direction, Mr Blair has certainly not made it any easier for his party to achieve electoral success over the long term." This was not the most fertile starting point for Mr Brown. There is no point shifting Britain a millimetre or two leftward if he leaves the voters behind. So he needs to move cautiously, and yet his caution alienates some Labour supporters.

His task is made more difficult by the confused attitude towards his predecessor in the media and beyond. By the time Mr Blair had departed, most voters and large parts of the media disliked him with an intensity that bordered on the deranged, yet some of the same people and newspapers approved of his reforms of the public services, or thought they approved. To make matters more complicated, Labour fell well behind in the polls in those areas where Mr Blair had been most hyperactive. By the time he left, the Conservatives were well ahead as the party to be trusted on the NHS.

So Mr Brown has to make changes without appearing to renege on the past, keep his party together, win back those who work in the public services and also those of us who pay for them. This was never going to be easy, not least after 10 years in which voters had been encouraged by a Labour prime minister to move rightwards. Brown's challenge is heightened because Labour is more seriously split on public services than is widely realised. At one extreme, there are the Blairites who regard the market, vouchers and a much smaller state as the solution. At the other are those who seek a much more active state.

Mr Brown navigates these minefields virtually alone. The focus is entirely on him. This is another part of his inheritance and one for which he is responsible. Over 10 years, Mr Blair and Mr Brown allowed no one else to breathe politically, and so the new cabinet stumbles awkwardly as they take in fresh air for the first time in their political lives. This has several dire consequences. One of them is that there are no obvious big hitters to put a case self-confidently in the media when the Government is in trouble. Against such a daunting background, Mr Brown has made many right moves. Although it is unfashionable to say so, he and others have responded sure- footedly to the various crises of recent weeks. I have yet to hear a detailed alternative course that the Tories would have taken in relation to Northern Rock and the missing CDs.

More widely, Mr Brown has sought subtly to reclaim the term "reform", so that it means more than agreeing with every word uttered by his predecessor, always a narrow definition of an over-used word. Some of his speeches on big themes, especially the one on foreign affairs, were more substantial than reported and point to radical new directions. Obviously, Mr Brown has also got quite a lot wrong. The misjudgment over the non-election was made worse when he claimed he wanted more time to outline his "vision". Few speeches can generate the reaction: "Wow. He gave us his vision."

As a result, most of his speeches are anticlimactic. More widely, Mr Brown has not yet acquired a convincing Prime Ministerial voice. Is he the consensual father of the nation? Is he in a furious, partisan battle with the Conservatives? As he struggles to find the right pitch, he tries too hard to outwit the Tories. He is in deepest trouble over his bid to extend the period for holding suspects, ID cards and because of his fear of regulation, a timidity that allowed banks to lend crazily in recent years.

So what should he do? It is not necessarily contradictory to be quietly consensual and point out the dividing lines with the Conservatives. No one else will point them out if he does not do so. He should be himself and put his case more forcefully. Imagine Margaret Thatcher facing the various crises of recent days. She would have stridden forward without a hint of contrition.

The latest cliché is that Brown should "widen his circle of advisers". It is a cliché raised most often by those outside the circle who would like to offer their indispensable advice more often. The cliché is nonsense for several reasons. The crises have had nothing to do with a lack of advice. Even in the case of the non-election, virtually every journalist in the land was consulted as well as most Labour MPs. That was the problem. The entourage asked too many people for their advice, conveying a reckless sense of pre-election excitement.

Since the non-election madness, senior figures, such as Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw, have been consulted more extensively anyway. But Mr Brown needs to make much more use of those who can put a case in the media, such as the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson – the only politician apart from Mr Blair and Ken Livingstone who can be conversational and authoritative in media interviews.

In terms of policy, he should avoid asking so persistently: How do I please Rupert Murdoch and co? When he seeks to please them, he gets into trouble, as he has done with 28 days and ID Cards.

Maybe Mr Brown is doomed whatever he does, but I have yet to meet anyone, including senior Conservatives, who believe such a turning point has been reached. There is still a chance for Mr Brown to get over that awful summer honeymoon which made it all look much simpler than it was ever going to be.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Comments