Letter from Westminster 04.07.08
I DO not believe that the constituency of Henley would ever feature high among the seats expected to be won by the Labour Party, but on any view for the Labour candidate there to finish fifth in last week’s by-election behind the Greens and the BNP must have been a disappointment and not the anniversary present that Gordon Brown would have wished for to mark his first whole year as Prime Minister.
Of course every party can have bad by-election results from time to time. I well recall the evident embarrassment of my Lib Dem colleague in a television studio trying to explain away the fact that our candidate had just finished behind the Hamilton Academicals Fan Club candidate in the Hamilton by-election. We should not, therefore, read too much into one result. But as an illustration of how things have changed for the Prime Minister in a year it is telling.
It was all so different a year ago. Whereas the hallmark of the Blair government in the latter years had been spin and news management there was a refreshing un-spun feel to the Brown government. Outside talent was recruited to the ministerial ranks and parliament, we were told, was to be given a more substantial role in the decision making process again.
There were then a number of crises over the summer months – flooding, the foot and mouth outbreak and the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport – and Gordon Brown again was felt to have responded to them well.
The storm clouds started to gather as the autumn came in. Northern Rock found itself in difficulty. Overnight several billions of pounds had to be found as the consequences of letting a high street bank collapse were unthinkable. Suddenly the Prime Minister’s reputation built on a record of economic competence was looking a bit less shiny.
The point at which it started to unravel was the cancellation of the general election that never was at the beginning of October. Suddenly it seemed that the spin doctors and news managers were back in control and the popular perception of the government changed overnight.
Since then Gordon Brown seems to have lost his touch. Too often he has allowed himself to be talked in to messy compromises. He signed the Lisbon Treaty but not at the same time as all the other heads of government. He met the Dalai Lama but not at Downing Street. He received the Olympic Torch in Downing Street but wouldn’t actually hold it.
So he ends the first year in not great shape. What is going to improve things? Well, some of his problems seem to be beyond his (or anyone else’s) control. The price of fuel is one such problem. On the positive side he has two years to turn things around. Get rid of the news managers and the spin doctors. Let people see what he really stands for. It might just work. One thing is certain – carrying on as he is will not take him back to Downing Street.
Alistair Carmichael MP