Andrew Grice: Will Brown accept any blame?

Inside Politics

Saturday 24 January 2009 01:00

The latest focus group reports to thud on to Gordon Brown's desk make grim reading. Many people fear they will lose their job. In contrast to the recessions of the Eighties and Nineties, they believe they will probably get another job in about six months. Their biggest worry is that they will lose their home in the meantime because they will not be able to keep up their mortgage payments.

The wheel is coming full circle. Many Labour MPs won their seats in 1997 amid an anti-Tory backlash over negative equity and house repossessions.

Today, Labour ministers cast an envious eye at Barack Obama as he starts the job of clearing up an economic mess made by someone else. The phase in which the British public give Mr Brown the benefit of the doubt is coming to an end. Yesterday's worse-than-expected figures confirming we are in recession will make his position more perilous. The normal rules of political gravity – which Mr Brown suspended last autumn – have resumed. It had to happen.

As I have argued previously, talk of a 2009 general election was always for the birds. The waves of blame lap closer to the door of 10 Downing Street. Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, chairman of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), made sense when he argued this week that bankers, regulators, central banks, finance ministers and academics all failed to identify that the whole system was fraught with market-wide, systemic risk.

One of those finance ministers, of course, was Mr Brown. The voters know it, but he doesn't like to remind them as he struggles to find the right language for the recession. He tried a new tack this week. Announcing his second rescue of the banks, he was "angry" at them for hiding the scale of their bad lending. Yet he could not accept his share of the blame, even though he set up the financial regulatory system in 1997 – a three-way split between the Treasury, Bank of England and FSA, whose "light touch" New Labour trumpeted as it tried to reassure the City.

Quite reasonably, Mr Brown was asked at a press conference to accept that the current crisis happened "on his watch". His answer? To talk about America, on the grounds that some of the Royal Bank of Scotland's problems stemmed from the sub-prime mortgage market in the US "which of course is regulated and supervised not by British authorities ... but by American authorities." Danger: diversion ahead!

Yesterday, on Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Brown was asked what his biggest mistake had been. He insisted the Government had believed institutional failure in the financial system was possible, but added: "What we didn't see, and nobody saw, was the possibility of complete market failure, that markets seized up across the world." A grudging admission.

On a visit to Sellafield later, the Prime Minister was asked whether he felt a personal sense of responsibility for the recession. He said he felt "personal sadness" for the unemployed and had a responsibility to get Britain through "a global banking crisis". More evasion.

Other senior figures have gone further than Mr Brown. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, told Sky News last week that "mistakes" had been made globally, not least in allowing so much cheap credit. "Yes, there are things that we could have done better," he conceded. "All of us have to accept responsibility for what was happening." Getting warmer. Geoffrey Robinson, a Treasury minister when the regulatory system was created, told the BBC's Newsnight programme on Thursday: "There are mistakes all round. We as a government have made our fair share." Much better, nearly there. But surely we need to hear Mr Brown say sorry for those mistakes.

No doubt he fears the screaming headlines – "Brown admits: it's all my fault" – would stick in people's memory. Yet his "made in America" line is starting to wear thin. His evasions allow the Tories to accuse him of being in denial, diverting attention from the debate over what should be done. Would a Tory government allow the banks to go bust? Of course not, as David Cameron admitted (grudgingly) after addressing the Demos think-tank on Thursday.

Brown allies insist there is no point playing a blame game. Other Labour folk disagree, saying the Prime Minister would get more credit from the public if he took more responsibility. "We haven't got our language right," one senior figure told me. "We've got to be more open about what went wrong on our watch. Then we can move on and focus on the choice between us and the Tories about how to put it right."

How Tony Blair said sorry (sometimes)

1997: "Expresses regret" that England did not do more to alleviate the Irish Potato Famine of 1845

2000: The Millennium Dome at Greenwich: with hindsight, he "would have listened" to those who said "do not try to run big visitor attractions"

2002: A-level marking fiasco: "I am sorry this situation has ever arisen"

2004: Scrapped plans to say "sorry" over Iraq war in his Labour conference speech. But apologised for intelligence saying Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, and "apologised deeply" to Iraqis mistreated by British troops

2007: Says that Britain is "sorry" for the slave trade

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