Bruce Anderson: We are in desperate need of good and honest government

In trying to describe Gordon Brown's task, its impossibility becomes manifest

Monday 28 September 2009 00:00 BST

It has been a bad week for the Government. Far worse, it has been an embarrassing week for Britain. The Attorney General is fined £5,000 for a breach of a law which she helped to draft – and refuses to resign. One might expect that sort of behaviour in one of the more excitable countries. No one would be surprised if a colleague of Signor Berlusconi's behaved in that way. But Britain? We used to have higher standards: much higher standards.

With no real background in party politics, Patricia Scotland had no training in political adversity. The House of Lords is hardly the place to rectify that – and anyway, she is popular on all sides. One can understand her inability to think straight in the immediate aftermath of the revelations. But someone else should have done that for her, and given her gentle but firm advice. Where was Lord Mandelson? After all, he is supposed to be running the Government. Someone ought to.

If Pat Scotland had offered her resignation right away, she could have been moved to another department. As it is, she may survive, but what is the point? Once she recovers the power of clear thought, she may well regret her success in hanging on. The Attorney Generalship is a great office, carrying immense prestige. You simply cannot have a discredited AG. But this government, and this Prime Minister, have lost all contact with decency and common sense. Hanging on is now their sole raison d'être.

The indignity of it all. Tony Blair was often and unfairly accused of subservience to George Bush, whose "Yo, Blair!" greeting was interpreted as a humiliation, when it was no more than Mr Bush's habit of addressing good friends as if they had both known one other since they were 12 years old.Mr Blair was not Mr Bush's poodle.

The canine humiliation came in Pittsburgh, where Mr Brown behaved like a neglected lap-dog, trying every pathetic trick he could think of to please his owner. In the end, the PM was given a patronising dog-biscuit of a meeting, but what a cringe-making episode. Is our great country reduced to this? As this lamentable Premiership staggers on to its eagerly-awaited end, we can only hope that there are no more trips abroad. As Hamlet said of Polonius: "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in's own house."

It is to be hoped that the blame for all this unworthiness falls where it belongs: on the PM and the Government. It is to be feared, however, that recent events will merely increase public dismay at the state of the nation, and public discontent with the political system. It is no use arguing that most MPs are hard-worked and overpaid, that the country can survive seven more months of Lady Scotland: seven more months, even, of Gordon Brown. We were already aware that he was one of the worst Prime Ministers of all time, so what is new? But there is something new: a mood of disquiet bordering on anger, to a greater extent than at any time since the late 1970s.

The country desperately needs a period of good and honest government. Whether this is a tribute to his political courage or to his detachment from reality, Gordon Brown still believes that he is the man to provide it, and he will use his Party Conference speech to project that message. It would be implausible enough even before the technical obstacles.

For the last time, David Cameron has been enjoying one luxury that is available to Leaders of the Opposition and denied to prime ministers. He can concentrate exclusively on his Conference speech. Gordon Brown has had other matters on his mind. We know what the plan was. Success at the G20, sweep from Pittsburgh to the platform, astound the world by his claim to have saved it, with a little help from his dear friend the President: hall roars with applause, 10-point boost in the polls – suddenly, electoral politics is volatile again.

The first part of that scenario did not exactly follow the script, and as poor Mr Brown was wagging his tail and emitting plaintive little barks in public while sulking and brooding in private, the time available to work on the speech was steadily diminishing. Yet the PM will have to stick to the script; there is no Plan B. Mr Brown will have to talk about "values": to go back to the days of "not flash, just Gordon". He must aim to persuade the voters that he is a serious man for serious times: that no one else can be trusted.

When one tries to describe his task, its impossibility becomes manifest. The public reaction is bound to be scepticism rapidly increasing to incredulity. He is not trying to make a soufflé rise twice. He is trying to resurrect a failed soufflé after the cat has finished with the bowl. But there is no alternative – for Gordon. Other members of his party could pass their time more constructively. That does not mean leadership challenges; it is too late. If this were last year, with more than 18 months available until the election, there would be no point in Mr Brown even going to Brighton. He would be what was left of the soufflé after the cat had been sick. But the party is now stuck with him. Acknowledging that, wise Labour supporters should have two realistic objectives.

The first is to promote party discipline. If Labour MPs think they can spend the next six months moaning about their leader while insisting to every passing journalist that they are all doomed, and then make up for it in four weeks by telling the voters how wonderful the Government is and how much it deserves to be re-elected then it is not Gordon Brown who ought to be accused of lunacy. It may be that the only hope is sauve qui peut. But the steadier the troops are on parade between now and polling day, the more it will be possible to save.

The second is to prepare for the post-election conflict, and to make sure of winning the battle to turn the Labour party into a social democratic one, in which the last ghosts of socialism have been exorcised. That was Tony Blair's goal.

The party's record since his departure does not suggest that this was foolish of him. Post-Blair, the goal should be a merger with the sane wing of the Liberal party to create a new left-of-centre force that would marginalise the socialist rump of old Labour. The end product would be a fusion of Blairism and the SDP, which should not be difficult. They were always identical.

But Tony Blair is the problem as well as the solution. It is as if he had been an organ that had been transplanted in a controversial operation, and has now, at last, been rejected. Yet the patient thinks that he is feeling healthier, which is odd, given that the organ involved was electoral success. It may take years before the Labour party is able to think dispassionately about the Blair legacy. Yet one thing is clear. If Labour is to survive as the second party, old Labour will have to be expunged.

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