Alan Watkins: Labour in power after 2010? Not on your nelly

Former home secretary Charles Clarke has been reflecting on the government's future. All very interesting – but not convincing

Sunday 17 February 2008 01:00

A deep peace settled on the Palace of Westminster last week. The reason, I assume, was that it was half-term. In my own formative years, I had never heard of such a thing. Why on earth should the entire nation, or a good part of it, choose to take a whole week's holiday in the middle of February? This is additional to the now customary two weeks from Christmas Eve to sometime at the beginning of January.

Oddly enough, I approve of a more relaxed attitude – that, I think, is the favoured phrase – towards working practices. But I do not see why the loafers in the House of Commons should take yet another week off. At least Mr Gordon Brown does not have to come down to the House.

Last week I reproved Mr Speaker Martin (and, I hope, in the most respectful terms) for over-protecting Mr Brown. In particular, I rebuked him for allowing the Prime Minister to get away with various attacks on the Conservative Party, when the policies of the party in question were none of the Government's business. It was not the responsibility of the Prime Minister.

I do not suppose it will have the slightest effect. Still, I have tried. In any case, there is no consensus about the reputations of prime ministers in relation to their parliamentary performances, any more than there is one about politicians in opposition.

Mr William Hague won golden opinions for his displays at the Despatch Box after 1997. But few, even in his own party, thought he was going to win the next general election.

Mr David Cameron is doing well but not quite well enough. In view of various disasters for the Government since October, he ought to be miles ahead in the polls. That seems to be the view among my colleagues.

The corollary is that there is ample time, until June 2010, for Mr Brown to recover. My own view is that there was a shift in public opinion in 2007 or even as early as 2006, and that since then the period of Labour is slowly, and often painfully, playing itself out.

One of my fellow-toilers in the vineyard of historical spans is Mr Charles Clarke. Another was James Callaghan. The former prime minister confided to his fellow memoir writer Bernard Donoughue that there was a political tide which practising politicians caught or missed but was largely out of their control.

Thus there was a tide which brought the post-war Labour government to power in 1945. But there was a movement – Callaghan called it a "sea change" – which made Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister in 1979.

Mr Clarke chose to bring in his slicing up of history with the Conservative win of 1951 rather than with Labour's in 1945, but no matter. You have to start somewhere.

What came to be known as Macmillan's England, though he was prime minister for only six of the 13 Tory years, also became known to Labour propagandists as the "13 wasted years", even if some of us remember them with a certain amount of affection.

After 1964, we had the Age of Wilson. That is my label. Not Mr Clarke's, but we are talking about the same period, which lasted until 1979.

This is a bit of a cheat on the part of both of us. The price of oil was trebled (in some accounts quadrupled) in 1973; the system of fixed exchange rates came apart in the early 1970s; and the economist J M Keynes lost his authority throughout the Western world.

Moreover, for almost half the 1970s, we had a Conservative government led by Edward Heath, whose administration had originally anticipated the economic changes later introduced by Mrs Thatcher in the early 1980s.

Since we are in the business of period-slicing, we should remember the election of 1951. The Labour government still had a narrow majority of three, though that was thought impossible by the standards of the time. Labour could have gone on governing. For three years, Callaghan carried on with no majority of any kind, whereas Sir John Major did the same for a shorter period before 1997.

I do not want to quibble with Mr Clarke about his historical swoops. Even so, the 1970s could not, perhaps – I put it with hesitation – be described as a Labour decade.

The Conservative period which followed and lasted for 18 years could certainly be called conservative. But it would be unrecognisable to, say, the third Lord Salisbury. R A Butler would be at a loss. Even so go-ahead a character as Iain Macleod might find himself at a loss.

Since 1997, we have had another age of Labour, even if it was a different Labour under the same name. This is the third period since 1945 or, as Mr Clarke would have it (perfectly justifiably in his timescale), the second since 1951.

I agree with Mr Clarke to the extent that this age is coming to an end. My doubt is whether the whole show can be kept on the road not only until 2010 but for four or five years after that.

Mr Clarke is not so much an old Blairite as an old Kinnockite. I remember him taking me to task over the nationalisation of water. It was in the parliamentary press gallery before Prime Minister's Questions. I do not remember whether he was Neil Kinnock's man-of-business at the time, or had acquired a subsequent attachment to Tony Blair. I certainly know that he was in favour of the privatisation of the industry involved. I was opposed to it, in consequence of something I had written in what we old journalists have been brought up to call Another Sunday Newspaper.

At all events, he early established his credentials in my mind as a moderniser. He was, I thought, a better Home Secretary than others who have occupied the post since 1997. He was harshly treated by Mr Blair. There have been no signs that I can make out of a summons to the capital by Mr Brown.

Yet in the period of New Labour, ministers are taken back into active service without a stain on their characters. In the days of old Fleet Street, senior journalists would be sent off on a round-the-world cruise. When they returned, they would find that their desk would be occupied by somebody else entirely. With New Labour, ministers are sent on a cruise, only to find an equally grand job awaiting them on their return to dry land. So far, this has not happened to Mr Clarke.

One can only suppose that he has been asking the wrong questions. Or, rather, it is a question put in the wrong form. The right answer should be: of course Labour can recover under Mr Brown. Instead the answer somehow turns out to be: not on your nelly can Labour recover, not with Gordon Brown as leader.

Mr Clarke does not intend to say this. He believes in having a Labour government after the next election. Perhaps he convinces himself of it. But he does not convince me.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments