Steve Richards: Something had to give – and it has

Brown now knows that all the cards are up in the air once more, and he holds an ace in his belated, calculated support for a referendum on electoral reform
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The Independent Online

We are in unchartered waters. They were Gordon Brown's uncharacteristically candid public words at the height of the economic crisis in the autumn of 2008, as he bailed out one bank after another. "We are in unchartered waters". This was John Curtice's analysis in yesterday's Independent of the transformed political situation. Even the professor of Strathclyde University is not sure what will happen next in the election campaign.

Finally political turmoil mirrors the near apocalyptic economic events of recent years. On both fronts we are in unchartered waters. Shortly before the election one of the most insightful cabinet ministers told me that he could not recall a time when an economic crisis and a parliamentary scandal had erupted simultaneously. He predicted that profound change was bound to follow, but was not sure what form that change would take. Now we are starting to get an idea.

It always struck me as odd that amidst such a tempest David Cameron would sail through to a relatively easy win. At a point when even some of the most recklessly extravagant bankers were pleading for the state to intervene, Cameron proposed a cut in the size of the state and opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock. His response felt outdated and was accompanied by so many U-turns in policy that his political voice was not clear.

The lack of clarity was largely obscured by the Government's own near terminal tensions. Before last week it seemed that a combination of Cameron's presentational skills, Labour's unpopularity and an army of support in influential newspapers might have been enough to convince voters that he was the candidate that stood for "change". Now Nick Clegg has dramatically seized the mantle and Cameron's erratic leadership is viewed through a more critical prism. As a result Cameron has lost some of the aura of Prime Minister-in-waiting, an important aura that feeds on itself.

Part of Clegg's soaring rise is superficial and disturbing. His performance in last week's debate was good, but does not merit the adulatory response that followed almost as he left the stage. I bet few voters can remember a single word that he uttered. Clegg is the latest phenomenon of X Factor Britain, the country that mourned the death of Princess Diana as if she was a personal friend to 60 million inhabitants and hailed the cautious, inexperienced Tony Blair on the assumption he was leading a revolutionary crusade. Clegg will suffer a fall at some point when voters wallow in disillusionment with the same intensity that they elevate him at the moment. Similarly Cameron's performance last Thursday was not as weak as mythology suggests. There is a gap between perception and reality. All that matters is the perception. The country needed a winner and a loser. After that a narrative is formed.

The inevitable, hysterical reaction against Clegg is a long way off. Cleggmania will continue throughout the campaign, a relatively short period of time for a fashion to endure. That is partly because something much deeper is going on at the same time as primitive idolatry. Disillusioned voters wanted a fresh political answer to the explosive questions posed by the collapse of financial markets and parliamentary expenses. It could not be Brown, who as Chancellor presided over the system of regulation that allowed the bankers to do whatever they wanted. It could not be Cameron, whose party called for even lighter regulation. That is why, let us not forget, we were in hung parliament territory before last Thursday's debate.

As a result of that debate Brown looks suddenly the most relaxed and authoritative in his public appearances since he became Prime Minister. In his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday he managed almost to be conversational. Yesterday at his press conference on the economy his mood was the same. On one level this is truly weird. There is now a possibility that Labour will finish third in terms of the votes cast. Currently most polls place Labour third, a situation that might, in different circumstances, have led Brown towards overwhelming gloom. The single reason for his good spirits is that another candidate has highlighted what he has always believed but has not been able to convey, that the Conservatives are not as fresh and modern as Cameron's energetic leadership has sometimes suggested.

Brown is a sharp reader of politics. If he looks relaxed he almost certainly has cause to be so. For a devious schemer he is physically transparent. When Brown is miserable he shows it too. For now he knows that all the cards are up in the air once more, and he holds an ace in his belated, calculated support for a referendum on electoral reform.

Nonetheless in these unchartered waters his excitement or relief might prove to be premature. I spent most of yesterday speaking to politicians across the political spectrum. They agree that anything is possible. In the 1980s there was much speculation that the SDP would destroy Margaret Thatcher. In the event the anti-Tory vote was split and Thatcher sailed to two landslide victories in 1983 and 1987. Some senior Labour strategists have worried for some time that the progressive vote was fracturing, split between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. They were anxious before Cleggmania erupted.

But Cameron has greater cause for immediate concern. At the beginning of his leadership he had two strategic objectives: one was to kill off the threat posed by the Lib Dems, the other was to woo the Blairite centre-left. He is in danger of failing on both counts. The mood of the times is against him. Labour strategists might worry about the hostility towards a long-serving government. But one Conservative candidate in a safe seat tells me discreetly that he picks up little appetite even in leafy suburbs for the smaller state and "big society". Cameron has nowhere near the same level of support that Thatcher secured in 1983 and 1987, and there are reasons for this that go well beyond his leadership.

In the middle of an election campaign the thoughtful cabinet minister is offered an answer to what the profound change might be amidst the crises and scandals. For now it comes in the form of a single word: Clegg.