And they are off! No sooner were the last crumbs of shortbread brushed into the bin than the television news programmes were proclaiming the first shots of the election campaign. Well, if not the election campaign then the first shots of the early skirmishes in the preliminary stages of the phoney war before the start of the election campaign. As a member of the political class I can only apologise for what you are going to endure in the coming months. The early indications are not good. On the one hand the Conservatives do not seem able to understand (or at least explain) the difference between a policy, a commitment, an aspiration or something that might just be a good idea. On the other hand the Labour Party seems content simply to take pot shots at anything that anybody else proposes without actually making clear what their own plans and vision are. If we are in for four or five months of this then I begin to wonder if anyone will want to vote at the end of it at all.
The great thing about Westminster politics, however, is its ability to produce the unexpected. So it was that on Wednesday this week, as we were filing out of the Commons chamber thinking that Gordon Brown had actually had quite a good week at Prime Minister’s Questions, the news broke that former cabinet members Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon had written to all Labour MPs proposing a secret ballot on the future of the Prime Minister’s leadership of the Labour Party. Wise old heads at Westminster began to wonder if the party had a death wish.
As the day wore on and a series of cabinet ministers eventually made statements giving Mr Brown their support with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it appeared as if the challenge would come to nothing. The problem for Mr Brown is not that the challenge came to nothing but rather the reasons for which it happened at all.
Reading the analysis of the BBC’s Nick Robinson it would appear that the letter was written in the expectation that up to half a dozen cabinet ministers were unhappy enough to support it once the initial move had been made. If he is right then I suspect that nothing much will have changed and Mr Brown will still have a significant chunk of his cabinet (and certainly his back benches) who are unhappy and would like a change but who can see no way of achieving it this side of a general election. So does any of this matter? It matters in one sense at least. We are still in one of the worst economic recessions since the 1930s. If we are to recovery fully and quickly then we need a government that has a mandate from the electorate and a clear sense of purpose – not one where the only real debate seems to be over who will finally topple the Prime Minister. Never mind the preliminary skirmishes and the phoney war. The real election campaign can not come soon enough.
Alistair Carmichael MP